How Ukraine Prepared Itself for Total War

How Ukraine Prepared Itself for Total War

While Ukraine’s military remains vastly outgunned by Russia, the change in strategy and reforms undertaken since 2014 have succeeded in creating a military and society capable of taking a total war footing.

As the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine stalls, it is easy to forget that many initially believed Ukraine would collapse in a matter of days. In early February, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, warned American lawmakers that Kyiv could fall within seventy-two hours. As the invasion began, multiple sources confirmed Washington’s expectation that Kyiv would fall within one to four days. Ukrainian officials allege Germany’s finance minister thought Ukraine would fall within hours. For a moment, a rare convergence occurred between Western and Russian narratives. And yet, more than a month into the invasion, Kyiv is still firmly in Ukrainian hands. Russian excursions to rapidly encircle the Ukrainian capital have completely withdrawn. This success has led some commentators to declare that not only is Ukraine not losing, but is also winning. This is likely too optimistic: Russian troops have occupied large swathes of Ukrainian territory and are reportedly preparing for a new grand offensive in the east. Nevertheless, it is clear that Ukraine has outperformed the expectations of even top Western analysts and, for now, has fought Russia to a standstill.

Russian tactical and logistical underperformance, as well as Western military aid to Ukraine, have both played a role in this surprising outcome. But the far greater factor is a general failure to acknowledge the strength and readiness of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Last December, Ukrainian minister of defense Oleksii Reznikov wrote an op-ed for the Atlantic Council where he accurately predicted that Russia’s air superiority and rocket systems would be able to devastate Ukrainian urban centers while its forces could “outmaneuver Ukrainian troops and seize territory.” His seeming lack of alarm at Russia’s military build-up was simply because Ukraine had been preparing for an invasion like this for the last eight years. “Russia’s powerful military can certainly advance in force,” he wrote, but “Ukrainian land will burn beneath their feet.” The plan, it seems, was to commit most of the force to the defense of Ukraine’s cities, where Russian armored formations would be at their most vulnerable to ambush and a successful defense would deny Russia control of key railway hubs, vital for resupply operations. This is a plan that came about after a painful reappraisal, following Kyiv’s military experience following the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution and Russia’s incursion into Crimea and Donbas.

The State of Ukraine’s Military, Circa 2014

In 2014, Ukraine’s military was helpless to stop Russia’s annexation of Crimea and hybrid invasion in Donbas. Russian troops bearing no insignias entered Crimea and occupied the peninsula largely without firing a shot, seizing military bases and much of Ukraine’s navy. In Donbas, months of brutal warfare led to a ceasefire and then a frozen conflict. Post-conflict analysis revealed that out of over 100,000 Ukrainian troops at the time, only 6,000 were combat-ready. Many soldiers simply deserted due to low morale, and it was only thanks to motivated volunteer divisions that the line in Donbas managed to be held. According to Russian news sources, over 16,000 former Ukrainian servicemen and civilian personnel were re-employed in the Russian military by April 2014.

To top it all off, many of Ukraine’s top defense and security officials were essentially Russian fifth columnists, with several high-ranking military officials outright defecting to Russia during the crisis. Ukrainian rear admiral Denis Berezovsky, for example, was appointed commander of Ukraine’s navy on March 1, 2014. The very next day, he ordered the navy to lay down its arms against Russia. He was promptly dismissed and then defected. Pavlo Lebedyev, who had served as Ukraine’s minister of defense since 2012, likewise defected to Russia, moving to Crimea and attending the official annexation ceremony in Moscow. 

This was perhaps not surprising given that Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who served from 2010 until his ouster in 2014, had empowered the security services while stacking them with pro-Russian figures and even Russian citizens. Yanukovych’s first minister of defense, Mykhailo Yezhel, fled to Belarus in 2016 after the Ukrainian state accused him of illegally selling military equipment to Russia in 2011 and pocketing the cash. His daughter is married to a Russian admiral. Igor Kalinin, whom Yanukovych appointed head of the Ukrainian SBU in 2012 (the equivalent of the post-Soviet Ukrainian KGB), was a Russian citizen born in Moscow who only became a Ukrainian citizen in 2004 at the age of forty-five.

Viktor Muzhenko, who served as chief of the Ukrainian General Staff from 2014 to 2019, summed up the situation in Ukraine at the time as having “an army literally in ruins, Russian generals at the head of [the Ukrainian] armed forces and security agencies, [and] total demoralization.” In many ways, Ukraine’s military struggles reflect Russia’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After all, up until 1991, it was the same Red Army. Ukraine inherited 40 percent of all personnel after the Soviet collapse, resulting in a bloated and outdated military with strong ties to Russia. Initial military reforms were focused exclusively on reducing the army’s size. Ukraine’s army remained a Soviet holdover well into the 2010s, which was reflected in its organizational structure, system of conscription, large stocks of Soviet-era equipment, and military strategy. Ukrainian defense documents from before 2014 did not even mention Russia as a potential adversary. Lack of reform also meant the positioning of Ukrainian forces was based entirely on Cold War-era Soviet concerns, with most troops stationed in the west of the country, awaiting a non-existent threat from NATO.

Ukrainian Reforms

Some of Russia’s current troubles in Ukraine could be explained by the mistaken assumption that the sorry state of the Ukrainian military in 2014 reflected the state of the Ukrainian military today. There is ample evidence that Russia’s leadership expected Ukraine to quickly collapse. But after the Euromaidan Revolution, the ouster of Yanukovych, and the ceasefire in Donbas, military reform became one of the Ukrainian government’s top priorities. In 2015, a change in military doctrine and strategy came into effect, with the rewriting of the government’s strategic documents. A new National Security Strategy was published that year, along with a new Military Doctrine, and Concept for the Development of the Security and Defense Sectors.

This revised strategy had two objectives: to fend off armed Russian aggression and to create favorable conditions for the “liberation of temporarily occupied territories.” In other words, retaking Crimea and Donbas. This required building an army capable of defending Ukraine from a conventional invasion and countering something akin to Russia’s 2014 “hybrid invasion.” Equipment, training, logistics, and much more needed to be completely overhauled. It took until 2016 for President Petro Poroshenko to institute a sweeping reform plan, organized into five categories: command and control, planning, operations, medical and logistics, and professional development of the military.

The three key goals of this reform were to professionalize the country’s armed forces, to recreate the Territorial Defense Forces, and to create special forces that could operate behind enemy lines. The purpose of all this was singular, with these documents naming Russia as a “military adversary” and stressing the high likelihood of a full-scale invasion. As a country less than one-third the size of Russia, this was recognized as a major challenge. The vast disparity in military power between the two countries was bluntly acknowledged in these documents. The solution was to foster a “culture of resistance,” allowing the state to mobilize all of society to inflict massive casualties on any invader and taking advantage of the country’s strategic depth to compensate for relative military weakness.

Such major reforms are not easy to carry out. But, learning from the dismissals and defections of pro-Russian commanders in 2014, the Ukrainian government put more reliable individuals in charge. Those carrying out Poroshenko’s military reforms remained relatively constant throughout his administration from 2014 to 2019. Muzhenko is one example, but Poroshenko’s Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak likewise served from 2014 to 2019. The head of the SBU, Vasyl Hrytsak, served from 2015 to 2019.

In order to professionalize the military, a transition was made from a Soviet-style top-heavy command structure to a more flexible one where lower-level non-commissioned officers are able to make decisions on the battlefield. Before, lower-level officers had to ask for permission from higher-ranking officers to change orders, even if battlefield conditions had rendered them obsolete. This shift in military culture has been aided in no small part by Western military training. And while Western military instructors have been key to professionalizing the Ukrainian armed forces, the Russian military has also played an important role. Low-level but active warfare in Donbas since 2014 has given hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians real combat experience with Russians on their home territory. Before 2014, the military existed largely on paper and relied completely on volunteer divisions to push back Russian separatists in the east. Most of these highly-motivated and battle-hardened volunteer divisions have now been integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces.

NATO countries have long been hesitant to overcommit to Ukraine, both out of a desire not to provoke Russia and a deep suspicion of the success and earnestness of Ukrainian reforms. Corruption continues to be a major issue facing the military, and its sluggish state defense industry monopoly Ukroboronprom remains an egregious source of graft. In the end, however, the vast flood of Western military equipment, ranging from NLAW or Javelin anti-tank guided missiles and Stinger man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs), all the way through to tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, has done much to compensate for a corrupt and sluggish procurement process. Although much of this equipment arrived only in the last few weeks before the invasion, and Ukrainian troops have had limited training time with it, Western equipment provision combined with Ukraine’s new military stance has been effective in severely denting Russia’s ability to wear down Ukraine’s resistance through attrition. Ukrainian forces have been drawing Russian forces into so-called “kill boxes”—areas where they are then hit with intense targeted attacks. Persistent ambushes helped the Ukrainian military repulse the assault on Kyiv.