On the state of the Ukrainian army since 2014 and what should be done to strengthen it
Michael Kofman serves as Director of the Russia Studies Program at the CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on the Russia and the former Soviet Union, specializing in the Russian armed forces, Russian military thought, and strategy. Previously he served at National Defense University as a Program Manager, and subject matter expert, advising senior military and government officials on issues in Russia and Eurasia. Mr. Kofman's other affiliations include being a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks, where he regularly authors articles on strategy, the Russian military, Russian decision making and related foreign policy issues.
Mr. Kofman has published numerous articles on the Russian armed forces, security issues in Russia/Eurasia, along with analyses for the U.S. government. He holds a M.A. in International Security from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University and a B.A. in Political Science from Northeastern University. His previous experience includes working as a researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace, HSBC Bank, and on international science and technology cooperation programs at NASA. He has published articles on security issues in Eurasia, focusing on Russia and Ukraine, along with numerous analyses for the US government. He has also appeared in major television, online, and print media as a commentator and subject matter expert. Mr. Kofman holds a M.A. in International Security from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University and a B.A. in Political Science from Northeastern University.
1. Do you think that President Zelenskyy and the newly formed Ukrainian government are moving Ukraine in a positive direction? Will they be able to ensure more effective modernization of Ukrainian military capabilities?
Moving Ukraine in a positive direction and military modernization are two different questions. I much prefer the platform and politics of Zelensky to that of Poroshenko, which I believe was a dead end for Ukraine, and visibly so did a lot of Ukrainian voters. That said, it is far too early to tell what Zelensky will accomplish. Populists can often disappoint. However, he has political power sufficient to make changes. The Poroshenko administration had external backing, but it was weak politically, and a lot of change was on the margins rather than at the core.
2. Is the Detente between Ukraine and Russia possible, or there is a long way to go before a stable peace Ukraine can be reached? What do you think about the recent developments regarding the Donbas region?
I think détente is possible, but right now, I’m skeptical. Ukraine’s and Russia’s positions are mutually exclusive. Both capitals doubt that the other side is genuinely intent on resolving the conflict, and most importantly, neither feels it has actually lost. Beyond a peace summit, it’s unclear how Russia and Ukraine will get past entirely different interpretations of the sequencing for a ‘modified Steinmeier formula.’ French efforts are mostly initiative, lacking substance. Moscow’s position is that it is incumbent upon Zelensky to do something about Donbas, while the Kremlin refuses to budge from the terms of Minsk II, which is essentially a victor’s peace signed at gunpoint. I don’t know if Minsk II is workable, but those opposed to it have seemingly forgotten the realities of why that agreement was signed in the first place. The only alternative plan is to hope that Russia simply gives up, and hope is not a good plan. Either way, the French initiative is a no-lose scenario for Russia. Even if it amounts to nothing, Moscow will use it in an effort to steadily wear away the European agreement on maintaining sanctions, which is only surface level anyway, i.e., a number of European states would quietly support an end to sanctions against Moscow.
Currently, I see no incentive for renewed fighting in the Donbas, but such zones are never peaceful. Instead, countries come to accept and become inured to a sustained level of violence across the line of contact. However, the humanitarian plight of people living in the conflict zone should be addressed, and the recent political opening may be an opportunity to reduce the humanitarian costs of the conflict without necessarily reaching a political settlement.
3. Have there been any substantial changes in Russia’s military and informational capabilities influencing its overall strategic approach towards Ukraine since 2014? Where do you think Russia has failed and succeeded in Ukraine, and what lessons Ukraine could learn from that?
Russia’s military has qualitatively and quantitatively improved since 2014, expanded in force structure, demonstrating much higher readiness, and stronger capability. That force is now bloodied in two conflicts, and many of the problems from the initial reform period of 2008-2012 have been worked out. Ground force structure has expanded significantly, especially on Ukraine’s borders, and the level of modernization has increased. Most importantly, it can operate more as a joint force, with large operational level formations. The Russian military has improved theater mobility, better command and control, and higher capacity for force generation on short notice. Some of the capabilities initially used in Ukraine like drones or electronic warfare were truly rudimentary, and we can now see more sophisticated technology reaching the Russian armed forces. For example, only a few years ago there were almost no drones in the Russian armed forces, today that number stands at over 2000. Unmanned reconnaissance platforms are better integrated into recon-strike and recon-fire loops, enabling real-time strikes with precision-guided weapons or artillery support without the need for bracketing.
I think in conventional warfare, after the initial battles of 2014-2015, the Russian military saw that much of the modernized Soviet equipment they fielded at the time was ‘good enough,’ but force structure and command and control were quite wrong. Also, artillery proved inadequate, and this is critical because it plays a dominant role in Russian ground forces. The Russian military has reinstated larger caliber artillery, along with acquiring precision artillery rounds, to destroy fortifications better. Trench lines, bunkers, and dug in tanks proved resistant against standard 152mm tube artillery and 122mm MLRS systems. The structure of battalion tactical groups has also been reworked for local wars like Ukraine, while much of the force is deploying automated systems of command and control across echelons. I think, on the whole, the Russian military succeeds at the operational level of war, and Ukrainian forces have a long way to go to prove effective at that level, but tactically, the Russian armed forces retain weaknesses that they are working to resolve. That’s the easiest gap to bridge between Ukrainian and Russian forces, assuming that any conflict will involve mutually imposed restraint and not a total conventional war.
Despite the notable advantage in quantity and quality, its important to recall that attacking forces typically need a 3-6 advantage over the defenders, and Ukraine’s military does not need to match the Russian armed forces (nor can it hope to do so) only retain a correlation of forces and means sufficient to impose high costs that outweigh desired political gains. In certain areas Ukraine can likely hold its own, or present a challenge such that the Russian military could not succeed without employing an overwhelming amount of military power.
I think the most important items for Ukraine’s military might should include a ready mobile reserve, echeloned defense, a sustainable force that doesn’t eat too much of the defense budget, and a solid mobilization base in a threatened period of war. Note mobility is king due to the size of the battlefield and the fact that dismounted reserves could prove rather useless against a well-equipped military in modern warfare.
4. Do you think Ukraine is successfully combating Russia’s information warfare and irregular warfare techniques in Ukraine? What steps should Ukraine take to counteract them more effectively?
Information warfare yes, looking at unconventional warfare writ large, I would say there have been mixed results. This is an intelligence problem, and a challenge for the state to take certain aspects of security seriously, like cybersecurity. I suspect Ukraine has the human capital but lacks the experience, organization, and most likely resources to get after such problems effectively. That’s not a criticism, coming from Washington, D.C. I’m in no position to suggest that we’ve done a wonderful job on tackling Russian indirect warfare, certainly not prior to 2016. On the whole, the Russian campaign in Ukraine switched more to indirect warfare after 2015, which is a pervasive confrontation that plays out through the depth of the Ukrainian state. Here I think it is important to have the art of the long view and work on building key institutional capacity, find good foreign partners, and improve counterintelligence to deal with the challenge.
5. Has the state of the Ukrainian army improved since 2014, and what else should be done to strengthen it?
Dramatically, but it started from such a low point that the question is not whether it has improved, but whether the military has sufficiently developed to meet the political needs of the state. Is it good enough to withstand a small assault by Russian led separatists? Surely. Can it engage Russian forces along a wide front? Or take them on in a meeting engagement? Probably not for very long. To be honest, I’m not sure I understand what kind of military Ukraine is building or if they know why. Often there are slogans, something about NATO standards, etc. and numerous equipment purchases that can seem disconnected from any coherent modernization strategy. For example, building a large pool of manpower that has gone through mobilization may seem useful, but in reality, it is rather expensive and in a large scale war scenario, will not provide much more than cannon fodder. I doubt a large force is necessary or sustainable, given the state of Ukraine’s economy.
Organizationally I like the appointment of a civilian defense minister. Because militaries are hierarchical bureaucracies, they tend to rot from the head. Civilians are better at reforming the armed forces, breaking parochialism, and implementing enduring change. Military leaders tend to be good at saying strategic things, but more often than not, they are institutional defenders because they are the products of those institutions, and romantics more so than strategists.
I suspect most improvements thus far have been at the tactical level: better training, better gear, more munitions, C2, and equipment. Probably the best lesson on what not to do is Georgia 2004-2008, which spent incredible sums on a mix of conventional equipment and a large force, which they were unable to use effectively. The lesson is don’t over-expand the force beyond what the budget can sustain, large numbers on paper are meaningless because excel spreadsheets don’t fight. Work on the problems in sequence and set goals: theater mobility, readiness, command-staff exercises, for example. Military education reform and getting good people in command might make a bigger difference then next-generation missiles. I don’t believe Ukraine needs to solve all the problems at once.
One of the questions is what range of contingencies should Ukraine’s military be prepared for? What kind of war is likely? What kind of war should Ukraine prepare for first, and where can it afford to take more risk, recalling Frederick the Great’s old adage that he who defends everything defends nothing.
I would add, above all, avoid wasteful prestige equipment purchases, i.e., irrational defense imports of expensive equipment, or procurement based on domestic political priorities. Poland is an excellent example to not follow, as is Taiwan. It might be worth looking to countries that quietly get it right, like Finland. Ukraine should seek areas of competitive advantage, capabilities that would either cost-effectively counter the way the Russian military fights, or prove game-changers for the way the Ukrainian military does business, whether it is communications, mobility, seeing at night, or survivability.
6. What is your opinion about current Ukraine’s stance on Crimea? What extra steps should be taken by Ukrainian authorities to ensure its gradual return to Ukraine, and what is a likelihood of a positive outcome in the foreseeable future?
I think Ukraine’s stance is the only stance it can have given the political sentiments in the country. I would focus on Donbas. I don’t know what steps Ukraine can take for Crimea’s gradual return, because I don’t think the gradual return is possible. I would work on a détente with Russia, then wait for the regime in Moscow to change. The way to Crimea lies through political change in Moscow. That’s not optimistic, but I think defense analysts should be conservative and trend towards pessimism, it’s the job of politicians to sell optimistic visions.
7. What key military and political risks to Ukraine statehood do you see right now, and how they could be averted?
I think most of the challenges are structural and internal. Russia is an important actor, but since 2014 it has also served as a useful alibi for Ukrainian elites seeking to avoid difficult reforms. Ukraine’s economic foundations of power are weak, even though the economy is growing. The rule of law, corruption, and oligarchic power remain the principal problem. Ukraine has to break the cycle of elites coming to power and installing a corrupt patronage network that then spends its time taking revenge on the previous officeholders, using state authority to dispossess them while new rent-seeking schemes emerge.
I expect Russia will maintain economic and political pressure on Ukraine, whether it is through gas supplies or various forms of economic blockade. A return to major combat operations is unlikely, and in my view, unnecessary for the Russian side to pursue their strategy. However, if Zelensky believes that he can somehow freeze the conflict and focus on building up the state, in exchange for no concessions, he’s going to be unpleasantly surprised. Odds are the French initiative to engage Moscow, and a Normandy format summit, will not result in any breakthrough. It may leave Ukraine outmaneuvered internationally, though, and Russia in a good position to end European sanctions despite the absence of a breakthrough in negotiations on Donbas.
Moscow has settled in for the long term and is convinced that it still has a chance to achieve much of what is outlined in Minsk II. Either way, the costs are insufficient for Russia to concede the conflict, and the U.S. has not suggested that there may be any incentive for doing so, meaning the U.S.-Russia confrontation has expanded far above and beyond Ukraine.