In seven years of war, the Ukrainian army has got better at fighting Russian-backed separatists despite structural problems. At the time of the Russian invasion in 2014, the Ukrainian army had only 120,900 active members, including, according to some estimates, barely 5,000 combat-ready soldiers. Ukraine then lost Crimea and, with it, 87% of its naval capabilities, based in the port of Sevastopol.
The army, taken by surprise, depended heavily on the help of volunteers mobilised across Ukraine. “Everything was missing, from food to bulletproof vests, to socks, not to mention the damaged Soviet equipment,” recalls Taras Chmut, who served in the Navy between 2015 and 2017 and later co-founded the Ukrainian military analysis website Mil.in.ua.
But seven years after the start of the conflict, Kyiv's forces are improving, equipping themselves with an arsenal bought abroad or produced locally as the defence budget increases. From nearly $1.5bn dollars in 2013 (1% of GDP), it nearly tripled to $4.1bn in 2021. Moreover, Kyiv can now count on 250,000 active members, in addition to 200,000 reservists and 400,000 veterans.
Ukraine also receives help from its allies, who have sent military instructors, signed bilateral agreements to sell used equipment, and sometimes donate it for free. Recently, Kyiv bought a dozen Bayraktar drones from Turkey, a Nato member, and plans to acquire more. Under Donald Trump, Washington also sent Javelin missiles to Ukraine, but on condition that they were stored away from the front line. Since 2014, the United States has provided the equivalent of $2.5bn dollars in military aid.
"The foreign aid received is tangible, but that's not what will change the balance of power with Russia," said Taras Chmut, referring to the Russian air forces. According to Glen Grant, a former British lieutenant-colonel who advised the Ukrainian defence ministry in 2014 and worked on reforms, the army also faces a structural weakness, in particular because of its Soviet past and a hair-tearing bureaucracy. It is one of the reasons why 65% of new recruits do not renew their contracts.
This article originally appeared in FPRI's BMB Ukraine newsletter. Click here to learn more about BMB Ukraine and subscribe to the newsletter.