Main Image Credit Help on the way: US Bradley fighting vehicles being transported to Ukraine. Image: Oz Suguitan / DVIDS
How has the Western effort to train and equip Ukrainian forces fared in year one – and what might we expect from additional military assistance in the future?
In August 2021, several Ukrainian officers relayed concerns about ‘corruption, incompetence, alcoholism, and idiocy’ in their military. However, when we followed up with these same officers this past month, they made clear that these ‘Soviet problems’ are mostly gone because ‘we’re now in a very serious business, a major war. This environment means responsibility and welcomes initiative’.
The approaching anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine means observers are taking stock of the first 12 months of fighting. While battlefield actions certainly warrant in-depth analysis, it is developments away from the front lines – especially regarding Western military assistance – that might eventually tip the balance in the war.
Kyiv is acknowledging the harsh reality of its dependence on Western governments for next-generation weapon systems as it exhausts Soviet-era stocks. One top Ukrainian presidential advisor recently commented that ‘indecision’ over sending extra weapons is ‘killing more of our people’. Similarly, though, concerns about the West not doing enough before the Russian invasion were also expressed by retired British Lieutenant Colonel Glen Grant, who complained about Canadian military assistance only consisting of medical training and ‘defensive stuff’ as ‘Canada didn’t want to be seen to be helping anybody to kill anybody’. In fact, one Canadian officer interviewed in Kyiv in August 2021 by our team was frustrated by Ottawa imposing restrictive rules of engagement when it came to advising Ukrainian personnel on cyber and information operations.
Surprise visits to London, Paris and Brussels on 8–10 February 2023 by President Volodymyr Zelensky rallied European countries to maintain support and aid for Ukraine. In Paris, he said weapons from ‘France and Germany have the potential to be game changers… The sooner we get heavy long-range weapons and our pilots get modern planes ... the quicker this Russian aggression will end’.
How has the Western effort to train and equip the Armed Forces of Ukraine fared in year one? What were the main roadblocks to getting advanced equipment into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers? What have been the major successes, and what might we expect from additional military assistance in the future?
After dozens of interviews with Western military advisors and Ukrainian personnel over the last two years, we contend that Ukraine is reaching a critical point as Soviet weapons, ammo, armour, vehicles and aircraft are exhausted. Western capitals will need to deftly manage the provision of Western armaments and improve unity of effort in advising and training the Ukrainian Armed Forces in an effective and sustainable way.
Success in repelling Russia’s invasion reflects years of preparation and assistance, political and military leadership, and the skill and bravery of the Ukrainian people. Without the willpower of Ukrainians resisting Vladimir Putin’s invasion and defending their country, Western capitals would likely be deploying even more forces to the eastern flank of NATO than they are already. Fortunately, Western efforts to build Ukrainian citizen resilience and resistance prior to Russia’s invasion ensured that many Ukrainians found innovative ways of opposing Russian troops, while enabling partisan and Ukrainian special operations units to ambush Russian forces.
Supporters of Ukraine’s war effort have much to be proud of over the past year. Despite dire predictions, Ukraine’s military has fought admirably against the Kremlin’s renewed and expanded invasion. Moreover, informal security assistance to Ukrainian troops through NGOs, civil society, and backchannel communications via Western military personnel has ensured that frontline forces have received proper equipment, intelligence and tactical advice.
Manoeuvre, Firepower, Protection
Since Russia’s 2022 invasion, the West has collectively provided over $48.5 billion in security aid to Ukraine, per the Kiel Institute. According to the Russian news agency TASS, this ‘nearly equals Russia’s 2022 defense budget’. The US has led the bulk of the effort to arm and equip the Ukrainians with advanced weapons, technology and intelligence. The US has provided over $27.1 billion in military aid to Ukraine and trained over 3,100 Ukrainian military personnel in 2022. With the approval of collective combined arms training for Ukrainian battalions in December, that number is sure to grow quickly.
Success in repelling Russia’s invasion reflects years of preparation and assistance, political and military leadership, and the skill and bravery of the Ukrainian people
Other Western countries have made important contributions too. For instance, the UK was the first country to pledge Challenger main battle tanks (MBTs), giving many Western capitals political cover to pledge their own MBTs. Even Berlin and Washington agreed to send their top tracks, but only after Germany made the transfer contingent on the US sending Abrams. Additionally, the UK leads Operation Interflex (composed of trainers and advisors from Western militaries), and trained approximately 10,000 Ukrainians in 2022. Between 2015 and early 2022, the precursor Operation Orbital trained over 22,000 Ukrainian personnel.
While France only coached 40 Ukrainian troops on its soil in 2022, French leaders have pivoted towards training 2,000 Ukrainians and have proposed teaching Ukrainian fighter pilots as well. This decision came after an announcement from the Netherlands on 20 January 2023 offering about 60 F-16s to Ukraine. On 10 February 2023, Ukrainian officials formally requested the transfer of Dutch F-16s to their military, but the success of this transfer and its impact on the Ukrainian Air Force hinges on two aspects. First, the US would have to approve the export and transfer of F-16s to Ukraine. Second, the necessary pilot and ground personnel to fly and maintain F-16s would require training in the US. The logic and pattern of Western security assistance over the last year suggests that President Joe Biden’s ‘No’ to Ukraine receiving F-16s will likely become a ‘Yes’ as the rest of NATO pledges and commits to the next level of escalation by providing Western aircraft and training Ukrainian fighter pilots.
Adding even more international weight to the training effort, the EU recently announced an expanded military assistance programme for Ukraine. With operational headquarters in Germany and Poland, the new organisation – the EU Military Assistance Mission in Support of Ukraine (EUMAM Ukraine) – is slated to train up to 30,000 troops, including crews for the pledged European tanks. All told, 26 member states have offered to either help staff the mission or provide training modules to the Ukrainians.
But it isn’t just weapons and training that have made the difference. Structural reforms in the Ukrainian military have also borne fruit. Following Russia’s 2014 invasion, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko directed sweeping changes to the military, requesting Western advisers to help implement the reforms and reach NATO standards by 2020. The resulting effort led to a fledgling Ukrainian NCO corps and, relatedly, increased emphasis on junior leader initiative. The post-2014 reforms also drove the creation of the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the establishment of a mechanism to rapidly enlist civilians into territorial defence forces. In the early weeks and months of Russia’s expanded invasion last year, both the SOF and the territorial defence forces played vital roles in Kyiv’s resistance. The value of Ukrainian territorial defence forces cannot be underestimated, as our interviews indicate these personnel are highly motivated to defend their country and spend their own money to procure weapons and gear to be on par with the Ukrainian SOF.
Although not widely acknowledged by US policymakers, growing evidence suggests that the US and European countries have provided targeting assistance to the Ukrainian military, contributing to the spectacular campaign against senior Russian commanders earlier in the war. Reports from this month go so far as to say that the US either provides or confirms the coordinates ‘on the majority of strikes’ launched by Ukrainian HIMARS units against Russian forces. Ostensibly, this is to ensure that limited ammunition stockpiles are used to maximum effect. More importantly, though, the process created between Ukrainian frontline units and US intelligence targeting centres creates trust between the two countries that may lay the groundwork for the approval of longer-range weapons in the future.
Despite impressive achievements, Western military assistance is still often ad-hoc and disorganised. Western trainers quickly stood up new organisations, such as Security Assistance Group-Ukraine (SAG-U) and EUMAM, solely focused on military assistance. Another organisation, Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine, was hastily relocated from Ukraine to Germany in the days prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion, forcing trainers to restart instruction all over again in a new country. One US planner likened the effort to ‘building the plane while in flight’.
Western planners seem to recognise the need for standardisation, with one staff officer telling us that many of the states involved in Ukrainian training have agreed to standardise their programmes of instruction (POI). Instead of each country training Ukrainian units in its own style, standardised POIs will help create uniform capabilities across Kyiv’s security forces. Thus, if a Ukrainian completes basic training (or any other type of training) in the UK, Germany or Poland, the result would be the same. Even more encouraging is the fact that Western planners have made strides toward aligning the training of entire Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) brigades, meaning individual companies can be trained throughout Europe, but then come together as brigade tactical groups and UAF brigades ready to fight after undergoing collective training. The push towards standardisation and unity of effort is designed to eliminate ‘assistance fratricide’ and to get all partners on the same path toward the same goal.
Early in the war, Western planners were caught in the tyranny of now, unable to address Ukraine’s long-term security needs due to the acute threat posed by Russia’s expanded invasion. That too seems to be changing. In January, Western planners held their first planning conference to prioritise training based on the advice and requests of the Ukrainians themselves. Staffers tell us these meetings are now expected every six weeks or so, with the next one taking place in March. Each meeting will enable greater unity of effort and more efficient use of resources to maximise the training of the UAF against Russian forces.
When it comes to military assistance, few things are more painful to watch than allies arguing over the details in public. Yet that is what has repeatedly happened over the past 12 months. Recently, the point of friction between allies has centred on the pace of aid and overall strategy. Visiting Washington in January, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly argued that it would be possible for Ukraine to score a victory this year if the allies move fast to exploit Russia’s vulnerability. US policymakers, however, pushed back, arguing that it is critical to pace the aid and not overwhelm Kyiv with resources that it cannot put to full use. One of the more egregious splits occurred last month after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz initially refused to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. After deliberations with the US, Germany eventually agreed to send the tanks, but only after the US committed to sending its own Abrams MBT to the front lines. It remains to be seen when Ukraine will receive Abrams because the Biden administration is using the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) fund. USAI money will have to be spent on buying Abrams directly from factories, meaning that it will take months to produce export Abrams for Ukraine; alternatively, the US might have used this as a stalling action, as Taiwan and Poland are also expecting deliveries of Abrams over the next three years.
Western Companies Witting and Unwitting Accomplices
Perhaps some of the more disquieting developments in Western military aid to Ukraine relate to the role played by major corporations. Research from Switzerland’s University of St Gallen recently found that 1,404 EU and G7 companies operated a total of 2,405 subsidiaries in Russia at the time of the expanded invasion. By November 2022, only 9% of these subsidiaries have divested from Russia, calling into question Western willingness to decouple from the Kremlin’s war-making economy.
When it comes to military assistance, few things are more painful to watch than allies arguing over the details in public
Few companies have caused more of a stir in the Russo-Ukrainian war than SpaceX. Elon Musk’s aerospace manufacturer earned praise early in the war for speeding Starlink internet terminals into the war-ravaged country. However, just this month, SpaceX announced restrictions for Starlink that would prohibit Ukrainian forces from using the connections in offensive targeting systems like drones. Our interviews with NGOs, such as Blue/Yellow Ukraine, indicate that such blocking of Starlink internet access actually became a problem much earlier, in the summer of 2022.
What does the future of Western military assistance mean for Ukraine? As an old US saying goes, ‘You cannot push a river’. Everything has its own timing, and security assistance cannot be rushed or delayed because there is a pragmatic need to assist Ukraine without provoking a nuclear response from Russia. Instead of predictions, we offer four questions to guide Western thinking over future military assistance.
Will Putin Escalate?
As Western capitals deliberate over providing fourth-generation combat aircraft (such as F-16s, Gripens, Typhoons and Rafales) to Ukraine, the US and other leading powers must be ever-cognisant of the impact such assistance will have on Russia. Already, the US is considering the option of re-inserting commandos back into Ukraine to revive ‘control teams’, helping Ukrainian forces and partisans to more effectively fight Russian troops. If the effort to arm the Ukrainians can continue to thread the needle between provoking Putin and improving Ukrainian lethality, Kyiv has a real chance of success in the long term. If, however, continued Western support to Ukraine proves too much for Putin to tolerate and the Kremlin dramatically escalates the invasion, perhaps with tactical nuclear weapons, it is hard to see how there will be any real winners.
What are China, Iran and North Korea Doing?
Just as the West has buttressed Ukraine against Russia’s onslaught, so too might China, Iran and North Korea – some of the few state actors willing to openly support the Kremlin’s invasion – reinforce Russia’s war effort. Iran and North Korea are providing substantial material assistance to Russian forces, mainly in the form of drones and artillery shells. Although there does not yet appear to be direct Chinese involvement in the war, the Biden administration has identified some Chinese companies as providing non-lethal aid (such as body armour and helmets) to Russia. Xi Jinping’s refusal to condemn Putin’s invasion early in the war does not augur well. Even more troublingly, a recent report from a US think tank found that state-owned Chinese businesses are trading in sensitive technologies with Russia’s defence establishment, including businesses involved in the ongoing invasion.
What Do We Expect This to Accomplish?
As Iraq and Afghanistan (and Vietnam a generation before) make clear, training and equipping foreign armies is a fraught endeavour. With Soviet stocks of war matériel becoming more difficult to source for the Ukrainian military, the West will need to shoulder a greater burden of defence production, education and training for the Ukrainian military. Instead of providing aging stocks of Western weapon systems and ammo, at some point, Ukraine will have to receive systems and ammo directly from factories. The inherent tension in this will be its impact on Western military readiness and force postures for potential conflicts and crises elsewhere. This will strain many Western militaries because they will increasingly have to focus on equipping, training and educating Ukrainian military personnel instead of their own. The goal, of course, for Western military advisors will be to achieve sustainability within the Ukrainian military through a ‘train-the-trainers’ approach, where Ukrainian personnel can become proficient enough in certain weapons systems and tactics that they can shoulder the programme of instruction at the institutional level and provide courses to their own forces inside Ukraine.
Can Transatlantic Unity and Engagement be Sustained?
With an infrastructure deputy arrested for stealing $400,000 and the discovery of over $1,000,000 in the sofa of a former deputy defence minister, the perception of Ukrainian corruption in Western countries will threaten the future provision of aid. Russian talking points and sociopolitical-information warfare against Western societies focus on undermining domestic support for Ukraine. Hence, Ukrainian leaders should continue political reforms and the outing of corrupt officials, as this liability can be weaponised by Russian propagandists and also by opposition parties in Western countries – leveraging Ukrainian corruption as a talking point to reduce spending and support for Ukraine.
With Moscow and Kyiv appearing on the verge of launching opposing spring offensives, there are no signs of either side letting up any time soon. But as Russia struggles to replenish its losses, Ukraine may have an opportunity to make significant advances, as long as Western partners can send the right assistance at the right time. The question then becomes, have the US and others learned from the past year of military assistance to Ukraine? Only time will tell.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.