Main Image Credit 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment deployed to Ukraine on Operation Orbital. Credit: British Army
Despite its extreme tenacity and resolve, Ukraine is paying dearly for failing to credibly deter the invasion in the first place. This holds lessons for Ukraine’s foreign partners, including the UK.
In the last few days, Ukraine has delayed and imposed costs on invading Russian forces far beyond what had been considered possible. This is despite, rather than because of, Ukrainian military preparedness.
The first phase of the war has gone badly for the Russian Armed Forces. While the information available is incomplete, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Putin has committed a gross strategic blunder. The short preparatory timeframe and underestimation of Ukrainian will to fight seem to have contributed towards disjointed and unrealistic campaign planning. Russian information operations, designed to obscure their true intentions and create uncertainty within Ukraine and among the international community while shoring up domestic support, were more successful at misleading their own forces than the enemy. As a consequence, the Russian conventional military failed to prepare operationally, logistically and psychologically for war. These early mistakes, and determined initial resistance by the Ukrainian standing military, granted the Ukrainian state and civil society a narrow window of opportunity in which to belatedly mobilise. Russia’s extensive network of intelligence agents and assets have failed to effectively disrupt this process.
As of 1 March, Russia’s ground forces are regrouping while reinforcements have been reportedly moving into Belarus. They still have an enormous advantage in combat power through numbers and technical capabilities, despite Western weapons and munitions now being sent across the Ukrainian border. It is not certain that Russia will prevail, but if it can restore momentum to its ground campaign then it may still be able to take Kyiv, topple the government and leverage some form of victory. Ukraine is now fighting for survival, and the ultimate outcome of the war hangs in the balance.
It did not have to be this way. Ukraine’s international allies and partners had eight years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of separatism in the Donbas region to ensure the creation of a conventional force strong enough to provide credible deterrence. Reform, modernisation and professionalisation were all necessary to ensure that Ukraine presented a hard target which could not be decapitated with military force. Given its acute economic problems exacerbated by war and a long-term political destabilisation campaign conducted by the Russian intelligence services, Ukraine could not do this without external help.
Foreign military assistance to Ukraine was forthcoming. A number of NATO partners provided assistance at considerable expense, though it should have been more extensive and better-funded. British activity was cohered through Operation ORBITAL. It provided numerous joint exercises up to battalion level, large amounts of equipment, as well as the recent delivery of and training on the NLAW anti-armour weapon as part of an urgent response to the build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine’s borders. British materiel assistance and training has been consistently well-received, and Ukrainian officers and soldiers have routinely complimented their British counterparts for both their professionalism and the quality of instruction given. The question that policymakers might ask is – what went wrong? Given that OP ORBITAL delivered extremely well, it is important to look at what assistance was not provided, and why. On doing so, the complex obstacles to effective capacity building quickly become apparent. Issues exist within the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Ministry of Defence as institutions that no amount of tactical training or provision of weapons and munitions could fix.
The Ukrainian military appears a capable partner at first glance, and one that has seen substantial change over recent years. As in the Soviet era, Ukrainian citizens remain legally liable for conscription, but in practice the backbone of the armed forces are volunteers under contract. The commitment to professionalisation and the prospect of reaching NATO standards of performance make this a very different capacity-building mission than those with the Iraqi Army or the UK’s African partners, let alone the now defunct Afghan National Security Forces.
Despite this, the de-Communisation process that the Ukrainian military is attempting to implement has run up against obstacles and set-backs. Poor pay and conditions mean that Ukraine suffers from a disproportionate personnel turnover rate at the three-year and five-year marks, the minimum terms of service for enlisted personnel and officers respectively. President Zelenskiy’s recent pledge to improve military wages came too late to solve this problem. While many Ukrainians remain willing to contribute to national defence, few choose to make it their career. This poses an impediment to generating and maintaining a professional force. Specialist trades such as air defence require longer training and education before personnel are considered ready for combat, creating a serious operational knock-on effect when these personnel are not properly managed.
To use the air defence example, survivability on the modern battlefield against a potential enemy such as the Russian military requires a high level of tactical proficiency. Air defence and artillery protect and enable other units, and operating and maintaining these systems requires a great deal of technical skill. This must then be combined with the tactical skills to use terrain effectively, fight dispersed, minimise the visual, audible, thermal and electromagnetic signature of vehicles and systems, and rapidly move and redeploy after engagements. Without skilled crews and capable officers, they will quickly be detected, targeted and destroyed, leaving the rest of the force vulnerable to air and artillery attack.
High turnover also meant that there was little time for the armed forces to benefit from investments in training before personnel must be replaced. This dynamic has forced the Ukrainian military into the expensive cycle of training larger numbers of specialists in its attempts to compensate for poor retention. This consumed valuable financial resources which would have been essential for rectifying capability and equipment shortfalls. This in turn contributed to the failure to avert the current war.
While numerous former active-duty personnel and veterans have volunteered to re-join the military and defend Ukraine, properly reintegrating personnel and rebuilding unit cohesion and tactical proficiency requires collective training. The reorganisation of the Russian invasion towards a more methodical advance posture is, therefore, likely to be quicker than Ukraine’s current emergency mobilisation, which features multiple inefficiencies and the accompanied risk that units underperform in combat. This may prove a catastrophic state of affairs given the Ukrainian disadvantage in equipment. The root causes are as much with poor administrative and human resources practices over the long term as they are with the obvious funding shortfalls for modernisation and procurement.
Should Ukraine survive the next few days, weeks and months, international assistance will inevitably have to widen from immediate technical capability concerns to institutional inefficiencies and frictions once again. The challenge goes beyond the military sphere and should not be underestimated. The domestic political buy-in required for deeper institutional change on the part of the partner is beyond the remit of a foreign military partner to fix, and requires concurrent political engagement by the security force assistance provider’s civilian government, ideally its executive branch. In times of competing imperatives, partners may simply not receive sustained top-level political attention when there is no immediate crisis – exactly when such engagement is needed.
These lessons are equally applicable to other missions that are still ongoing. Furthermore, the activation of 1st Division’s new 11th Security Force Assistance (SFA) Brigade is an opportunity to integrate institutional development directly into the British Army’s broader partnering and persistent engagement strategy. Though the Brigade’s new structure is still being planned, the groundwork originally laid by the Specialised Infantry Group built a body of knowledge and expertise about partner force capacity building, as well as the data to inform where and how that activity should be directed for best effect. Given that assistance must be provided at a relevant scale, over many years, and across a broad enough array of partner force institutions to ensure that deeper problems are understood, progress sustained and goals met, the new Ranger Regiment and the 11th SFA Brigade signal a commitment by the British Army to resourcing persistent engagement at a credible level. This opportunity should not be wasted.
Research Fellow, Land Warfare