Seven Years of Deadlock: Why Ukraine’s Military Reforms Have Gone Nowhere, and How the US Should Respond

“Such education and introduction of new approaches should occur either simultaneously at all levels or starting from the top tier of the chain of command—it will not work otherwise.”[1]


Executive Summary

After seven years of war, the Ukrainian defense system has not reformed. The reasons are extraordinarily complex and intertwined. They range from a lack of political direction; the continued selection of senior officers who are old school “red commanders,” that is, those opposed to NATO and wishing to maintain the Soviet legacy; to the inability or unwillingness of officers to challenge a system marked by outdated or detrimental laws, rules and regulations, since breaking these ensures punishment and career failure.

The United States’ “Gold Standard” assistance of more than $2 billion to Ukraine since the Russian war started has not had any noticeable, let alone quantifiable, return on investment. Indeed, US-driven reforms will not succeed without changes to the style and methods of support. Such a rethink of US military assistance will have to include greater conditionality on the aid, takeover of the program by a single military commander fully focused on reform and spending, and greater emphasis on selecting and training those sent to help after a much deeper study of the existing problems and challenges.



It is remarkable and stretching credibility that after seven years of war neither the Ukrainian military nor the defense industry has undergone any substantial or lasting reforms. Historically, during the two world wars of the early 20th century, fears of losing created powerful motivations on all sides to adopt changes and innovation in every aspect of defense. These wars drove the creation of new forces, such as the Special Air Service; innovations like the tank, long-range rockets and drones; and, of course, the nuclear bomb. But more than seven years since losing Crimea and fighting having engulfed eastern Donbas, Ukraine has made virtually no more changes than would have occurred naturally by evolution over time or in reaction to Russian attacks. Moreover, even those incremental developments have totally and utterly failed to create a sensible military answer. This sounds inexplicable, but it is completely true.

The following study describes how and why this has happened as well as the reasons it continues to this day. The survey and analysis consists of three main parts. First, the background section covers the war and sets the scene for the huge external support and reform efforts that followed. Then, the paper describes why little reform actually occurred, despite the willingness, high energy and resources of the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies to help. Within Ukraine, there has been little or no political direction or support for change, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. The bones and flesh of the military system remain steadfastly Soviet both in approach and methods, underpinned by a strong legacy of Soviet laws, rules and regulations. Secrecy is ubiquitous. The arguably broken system is strongly maintained by officers and staffs averse to change and quick to punish. The procurement system remains steadfastly dysfunctional even though positive changes to the law were supposed to usher in competition and transparency.

Second, the paper examines why the US’s “Gold Standard” support system does not function as wished. Especially in Ukraine, explanation is needed as to why it is not creating the desired effects. This study, thus, highlights factors such as insufficient understanding of the culture and organization as well as dysfunctions stemming from a lack of conditionality to the aid.

Third, this review suggests how to take US support forward, including recommending assigning a single military commander to the process who will be focused on reform and spending as well as putting a stronger emphasis on selection and training of personnel.

Throughout this paper, it is important to keep in mind that the Ukrainian military, from the political leadership down to the basic soldier, functions as one of the last vestiges of the Communist and Soviet system. The pathologies run deep. It is not representative of the vast body of Ukrainian society but rather should be seen as a historic anomaly in a country that is slowly modernizing.



Ukraine has one of the most complex post-Communist defense and security systems remaining in the former Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact and Yugoslav spaces. While the war and allied support has ensured that Ukrainian frontline soldiers have improved greatly, the defense system itself is clearly and publicly broken at the organizational level—perhaps beyond repair, according to many defense-supporting activists. Prior to 2014, Ukraine’s defense forces were encouraged to be “friends” with their Russian allies, while the Armed Forces themselves was systematically destroyed and emasculated by politicians, including former President Viktor Yanukovych. This occurred through the simple act of removing any parts of the system that could deter or fight Russia. Vast swathes of operational military equipment were sold off or stockpiled, and the most significant units were cut. Typical of these acts was the closing of the newly formed Joint Operations Command Headquarters, which had been created and developed over several years with strong US help and training. It has still not been recreated, despite the war.

Only about 50,000 soldiers could have deployed when the war in Crimea started, in February 2014; but of those, “only about 6,000 were combat ready.”[2] How many were ready and willing to fight is an open question. They were never given fighting orders by the political leadership.[3] Political inaction and a strict military culture of waiting for orders meant the Navy was largely lost by being bottled up in Sevastopol Bay. Many sailors committed treason and went over to work for Russia; some simply resigned. Their personal justifications included the fact that they had been born and raised in Crimea and so had no life elsewhere. Others simply despaired of the Kyiv government.

The irony is that since then, many of these sailors have been scattered to the four winds of Russia to serve, their ultimate loyalty to Moscow, of course, in doubt. Those who did stay loyal to Ukraine were ostracized by the General Staff in Kyiv and had to find their own accommodation in Kyiv and Odesa—and often new assignments. Many lived several years on ships in Odesa in appalling conditions. To this day, some have not been given accommodations for themselves or families, and many left the Navy early in disgust and despair.

Russia’s invasion of Donbas in April 2014 started slowly, with political agitation by Russian military infiltrators and in a highly confused fashion, all accompanied by a serious Russian international PR campaign suggesting what was occurring was a civil war. The Ukrainian government with a caretaker president, Oleksandr Turchynov, was confused, frightened and slow to act because of its uncertainty over which authorities it possessed. Officials in Kyiv initially called the war an Anti-Terrorist Operation (to this day, the Donbas war area is still called the “ATO” by civil society) and gave the task of managing the situation to the security services.

The security services were quickly overwhelmed, however, as the war became hot with Russian tanks and other weapons appearing. The task then moved to the army, but this was still too small and slow. Acting as taught, the Ukrainian army generals managed their forces centrally right down to platoon level, sometimes even from Kyiv. The weak army had to be quickly reinforced on the front line by national guard and even military police units.

With a few exceptions, the troops were extremely brave but usually overwhelmed by numbers, better equipment and lack of clear orders. The so-called “humanitarian convoys” from Russia were resupplying the Russian troops with ammunition and weapons. The day was saved by a civil society that mobilized. The Ministry of Defense and General Staff hastily created 33 small territorial defense battalions from May to August of 2014. Many other volunteers from Ukraine, the diaspora and others, such as from Georgia, went to the front line in small groups, sometimes with no uniform or weapons. They hoped to find these on arrival. This now national composite force suffered many serious losses of all units including a transport aircraft full of reinforcement parachute soldiers shot down and a unit caught in the open by multi-barrel rocket launchers. Almost without exception, the defeats indicated that both the leadership and units were seriously unprepared for war.

Some public successes also occurred, however, such as the daring 400-kilometer raid behind enemy lines commanded by now–Lieutenant General Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, currently a member of parliament (MP)t.[4] The second battle of Donetsk airport saw nearly four months of public and heroic defense. The forces were eventually defeated, but the extreme bravery shown by the few Ukrainian troops there earned the soldiers a title of respect from their Russian enemy of “Cyborgs.”[5]

The Russian operation effectively ended with two savage defeats of the composite Ukrainian forces at Ilovask in August 2014 and again at Debaltseve in January 2015. In each battle, Ukraine’s troops were surrounded by regular Russian forces. Many Ukrainians died and were captured. Those captured were later killed or tortured by the Russians. Because there are no records of the Ukrainian civilians who deployed to war, the exact numbers killed or missing will likely never be truly known. The two battles forced then-president Petro Poroshenko to sign the Minsk agreements to effectively halt the open warfare.

The second Minsk agreement, in 2015, saw the war stabilize to trench warfare. This has now dragged on for seven years, with steady and regular Ukrainian casualties. Yet this stability should have been a chance to rebuild society and the Armed Forces. It did not work out like that. The national and senior military leadership never forgave the fact that the military failure was so obvious to all of Ukraine. The consequence was a steady attempt by the government to unravel the social gains made during the Maidan Revolution and to remove the added strength that society had gained from fighting the war. This attack on society included trumped-up charges and prison. One political blogger summarized it thus: “Injustice became the basis of a new political order.[6]

Instead of cleaning out the failed officers from the Armed Forces, as the public expected, Poroshenko left the senior military intact. The response of the senior military leadership was to turn toward NATO in public pronouncements; but instead of engaging in reform, they looked backward and set out to recreate a mirror image of a “small Soviet Army”[7] or a Russian copy. Admiral Ihor Kabanenko, a former deputy defense minister, noted this should have been no surprise as they were “educated on [the] former Soviet System.”[8] Colonel Serhii Sobko, Hero of Ukraine, recently supported this in a TV interview, arguing that the current Ukrainian forces are mentally and physically in a past era.[9] They talk about NATO but, in fact, try to recreate the past. The public face says one thing, but the internal workings are totally another. There has been some change, but Adm. Kabanenko has said often that much of the public face of the senior defense officials really shows skilled use of artifacts, not any desire for modernization. Most non-governmental organizations (NGO) and military observers agree with this idea totally.


Where Are We Today?

So, in seven years of war, defense forces remain unreformed and, in many cases, managerially dysfunctional. As recently as April, there have been public complaints about poor army food,[10] even to the extent of having a special public Parliamentary Defense Committee meeting demanded by MP Solomiia Bobrovska. She had inspected the navy food and found it desperately wanting and a procurement monopoly.[11] Massive overpayments for defense housing projects and many other public exposures, such as poorly managed careers, continue today.[12] Medical support in the military remains dysfunctional, especially dealing with COVID-19. Procurement is simply broken, both within the Ministry of Defense and in dealings with defense firms. Corruption and inefficiency are at the heart of all this.[13] The mess surrounding new weapons and equipment is legion. None of these problems are new. They are repeated regularly, but despite loud pronouncements from the Ministry of Defense and sometimes sackings of staff, nothing seems to change. The usual mantra is that all is OK, we have completed thousands of NATO standards, and reform is going well.

In the military, the system is still full of “red commanders” at every level who punish those with NATO-leaning views.[14] It is, therefore, little surprise that 65 percent soldiers are leaving after their first contract. And although the army is publicly declared to be 250,000 strong, the actual trained fighting force is more like 130,000 and probably less. Many non-fighting soldiers are in the large Soviet legacy training and administrative structures alongside civilians and conscripts who do not deploy to war.


The Illusion of Defense Reform and Reaching NATO Standards

The hardest thing for outside observers to accept is that much of what they read and hear is an illusion created by the government and defense staffs, designed to convince their own countrymen, NATO allies and probably even Russia that reform is underway and that the forces are powerful and strong. Certain change is, of course, happening—there must be after more than half a decade of war. The frontline troops have improved immeasurably. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are considerably better. Some of this is because of war and the natural passage of time, but much is because of the energy and huge resources poured in by the US and NATO allies. And yet, this has not brought Ukraine the operational benefits one might have expected considering the level of the US effort. (For a more detailed description of how SOFs are reforming, see Appendix A.)

But at the same time, volunteer organizations are trying to stave off organizational disaster created by political and military decisions that severely degrade operational effectiveness.[15] For example, the latest naval doctrine to replace that of the US-supported Naval Doctrine 2035 is “harmful and impracticable because it is based on ambitions only and does not take into account the real resources of the state that can be directed to the Navy.”[16] The reality is that any improvement is simply random.

Promotion to senior positions is dominated by loyalty to military and political leaders, (personal, financial and material) or by bribe. Basic training concepts have changed little since Soviet times; and what the West calls “collective training,” in which exercising doctrine, leadership and decision-making dominate, only exists when units deploy on NATO exercises. The system still does not recognize the need or value of this, likely as it has no basis in Soviet thinking and runs against the prevailing centralized culture.

Much of the evidence for this was collected by Come Back Alive,[17] the largest NGO supporting Ukraine’s military forces in financial terms. Team members are mainly former service people who are at the front line weekly. They provide significant support to frontline troops, including weapons sights, drones and training that is not provided by the Armed Forces themselves. They have also recently completed a survey of the army, trying to identify why volunteer (contract) soldiers are leaving in such large numbers. Other evidence comes from senior retired officers, activists and volunteers who work with units, active and reserve military in the system, and a wide range of US officials and military who have been engaged with, or served, in Ukraine.

Before discussing the possible causes of failure to reform, one must understand how this failure manifests itself. Of the hundreds of such cases, two are especially salient: the failure of procurement by the Ministry of Defense and failed artillery reform. The first is causing operational shortages not only within the system itself but also leaving the defense industry with work but no funding.[18] The second failure by the General Staff has left a key part of the system outdated and totally unmodernized. The two, when combined, have ensured that Ukrainian artillery units are completely short of ammunition and frontline troops are at high risk of operational failure.



The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense procurement system is broken and has been since before the war. Historically, the defense budget was seen as a tool for supporting the party in power and enriching those in the system. This did not change after the war, and purchases were often clearly made at inflated prices. The process of purchase is archaic. The defense ministry’s own website described it thus:

Unregulated Ukrainian legislation in the sphere of public procurements, primarily paper-based document control and lack of transparent and fair tender procedures result in the inefficient use of public money and corruption. As a result, the level of logistical support of the army drops and poor-quality equipment and weapon systems are procured putting at risk [the] security of forces and the public.[19]

Even today, all the requirements are gathered on paper by the General Staff and Ministry of Defense and consolidated into one document called the “Defense Order.” This secret document goes to the national legislature for authority to purchase during the year. It is valid for only one year, which makes the procurement of complex systems difficult. For cultural and historic reasons, no effective defense policy exists in Ukraine’s defense ministry (despite there being a department with this name) so the listed requirements, instead of supporting the front line, have been more to do with making money by corruption, or in propping up the moribund and Soviet-style, ministry-owned defense industry. Procurement is complicated further by excessive secrecy that does not allow anyone outside of the system to see what is being put on the order—even in many cases what is being purchased.[20] In the past, there were many under-the-table deals frequently supporting political friends of the government.[21] Parliamentary deputy Solomiia Bobrovska writes that the Navy’s food procurement was a monopoly where “the state could have spared tens of millions of hryvnias, should other companies have won… The firm often supplies expired as well as rotten products at a price that is at least 10–20 percent higher than the market price.”[22]

But it is not just basics such as food and fuel that are mismanaged; even technology and the modernization of equipment, management of housing, and the purchase of replacement ammunition all appear dysfunctional.

The former Ministry of Defense Reform Office, a group of civilians working alongside (but not inside) the defense ministry since 2014, managed to persuade ministers to use the Prozorro IT–based procurement platform for competitive tendering. In a short time, 900 million hryvna (over $32 million) was saved, and the competition reduced some purchases by 40 percent below the anticipated price. Despite this, it has not stopped ministers from procuring without a competition.

The same group of civilians created a new procurement law for the parliament designed to streamline the system. This was accepted amid fanfare on July 17, 2020, as a great reform step forward and would bring Ukraine closer to NATO.[23] But the law required that the government then tidy up the old legislation and implement the new processes. The authorities did nothing, so the new law cannot be used.

Worse, today, there is a “completely secret state defense order”[24] for 2021, the contents of which cannot even be mentioned by members of the parliamentary defense committee for fear of prosecution. This order, signed five months late, has resulted in complete paralysis of defense supply and a total unwillingness of officials to take procurement and logistic risks for fear of punishment, even with the possible approach of a wider war.


Failure to Modernize Artillery

The artillery came into the war with structures, equipment and manpower totally unsuited for battle. In some cases, units were expected to fight with fewer than one-quarter of the numbers of their Western counterparts. Little has changed. The staff answer has been to mothball the guns they cannot man, thus appearing to be more significant as a force than they really are.

The guns are also Soviet-produced weapons, reaching the end of their useful life. They are firing old and totally unreliable ammunition. They do not have technical support, such as modern meteorology systems or muzzle velocity radars, to track firing speeds. So ballistic accuracy is extremely limited. Worse still, the artillery processes are mainly paper-based. During the early stages of the war in 2014, a few new tablet and phone-based apps were produced. The latest of these are complex ballistic firing systems with maps, hard tested and world beating. But in eight years, the General Staff has not agreed they are militarily acceptable. Nor has the military leadership delivered an alternative system. Civilian volunteers have purchased the phones and apps for the army but not in sufficient numbers to allow the units to try any modern dispersed deployment methods. Thus, they remain easy targets for the enemy. In exercises, the staff demand the troops go back to slow 1960s-type paper calculations.[25]

The national ammunition stocks are low, causing some weapons to be withdrawn from the front line.[26] As of April 2021, 18 explosions have occurred in ammunition and vehicle depots in Ukraine since 2014. These are likely linked to recent revelations that the Bulgarian and Czech arms depot explosions in previous years were caused by Russia.[27] Two hundred and ten thousand tons of ammunition have been lost in Ukraine, while seventy thousand tons were actually fired in the war. Hardly any has been replenished. Serious shortages of 152-millimeter and rocket launcher ammunition abound.[28] (More discussion about this issue can be found in Appendix B.)

The artillery commanders know what they need and want, but the General Staff and Ministry of Defense do not support them.


Lack of Political Will

The biggest factor in Ukraine affecting change is the lack of political will. How much of this is corruption and the influence of local oligarchs, how much is Russian influence and what can be attributed to a genuine lack of understanding of what to do is impossible to say. The first deputy chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff at the start of the war remarked, “We did not receive a single directive from the Commander-in-Chief [President Poroshenko] during 2014–2015,”[29] despite this being the height of hostilities. It appears that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is acting in much the same way, having showed little interest in the military beyond PR opportunities. He leaves both political and military direction of the Armed Forces to his commander-in-chief, General Ruslan Khomchak.

The government’s apparent public desire for NATO membership is not because the political elite want or like the North Atlantic Alliance (many senior officials do not, and they regularly display openly negative attitudes toward NATO values within their own commands). Rather, the objective stems from their inability to reform the security system themselves and their hopes that NATO—or the US—will bail them out. President Zelenskyy, on April 6, 2021, arguably exposed his lack of confidence in his own forces when talking to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: “We are fully dedicated to reforms, but we cannot stop Russia just by reforming. NATO is the only way to stop the war.”[30]

It is widely recognized in Ukraine that the domestic body politic and society have a weak understanding of the US and the West. Irakli Jhanashija, formerly a member of the defense ministry’s Reform Office, suggests that the Ukrainian political leadership misinterprets NATO’s true nature. As such, the politicians in Kyiv are growing increasingly intolerant of NATO delays in granting membership and what they see as added conditionalities. They think NATO owes them for fighting Russia.[31]


A Legacy of PostCommunist and Post-Soviet Culture

Ukraine’s national military culture is best understood by utilizing Geert Hofstede’s model as a guide. Hofstede views countries or organizations through six main cultural dimensions, four of which have strong influence in Ukraine. These four dimensions strongly influence the organization’s working culture. Although the national culture today is not reflected exactly within the defense system, research shows Hofstede’s findings to be remarkably fitting.[32]

The most significant for this organization is power distance, whereby workers “accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place, and which needs no further justification.” Ukraine scores an extremely high 92/100 in that category.[33] This can be compared to the low figure of 35/100 for the United Kingdom, where equality is more dominant and working life is based more on competence and results rather than power and loyalty. Observations of how people behave in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense shows that power is everything and inequality is culturally accepted and apparently welcomed as a military right. The minister must be a strong officer, and civilians are weak. This makes the Western concept of civilian control of the military highly problematic culturally, even for the public. Military commanders are lauded and revered as strong for their adherence to a culture of total discipline and control. The consequence is simple: No one will act without orders for fear of punishment. Decisions, even for the purchase of socks, are always made at the highest level. Unless an idea has the written sanction of senior leadership, it goes nowhere.

The second key dimension, “uncertainty avoidance,” is even higher, at 95/100. Hofstede indicates this shows total anxiety of uncertainty and ambiguity and fear of acting in any way that might create uncertainty or ambiguity for others. Thinking and decision-making are dominated by laws, rules and regulations. Western ideas such as mission command, flexibility or being proactive are anathema. Speaking honestly can quickly result in punishment. Having to tell something unpleasant to a senior officer will cause extreme physical nervous reactions of sweating and shaking, even from generals. People simply go sick rather than deliver truth. What this means for US support is that good ideas passed on to anyone except the most senior Ukrainians are never passed on or implemented. Foreign advice is stillborn.

“Individualism” scores low, at 25/100. In sum, Ukraine is thus a collectivist culture, in which clans and group trust are seen as more important than individual performance and results. This dominates careers. Selecting loyal friends and family is always more important than performance. Status is given to seniority rather than youth and action. Adm. Kabanenko highlights four separate clans running within the Ministry of Defense, and each protects its own.[34] When linked to the previous two dimensions, it means that nothing can or will happen within a clan grouping that is contentious or could upset the apple cart. Failure to deliver results is simply overlooked.

“Masculinity” also scores low at 27/100. A high score is indicative of a competitive and results-driven country, such as the US. A low score indicates more “feminine” traits such as quality of life, being modest and not standing out from the crowd. Telling a commander that something is not right, or worse that he might be wrong, would be seen as cultural heresy and simply unlikely to happen. Hofstede suggests that status symbols in this environment indicate power rather than masculinity—big offices, many bodyguards and fleets of colonels following you wherever you go are normal. The high uncertainty index, low individual score and the desire for harmony, taken together, suggest that whistleblowing about problems like corruption, is highly unlikely.

But one key attribute missing from Hofstede is that during Communist and then Soviet times, Ukrainian officers were pushed aside for senior posts by their Russian counterparts, destroying serious chances of growing a national leadership culture. With a few rare exceptions since independence, that prevailing carryover culture has shaped the officer class to act more like master sergeants than visionary strategic thinkers and leaders. When added to the national cultural drivers mentioned above, any change in the military becomes impossible without brutally strong top-down direction, with laws and regulations put in place first.


Defense Management: A Non Sequitur

Normally defense system management is a Ministry of Defense activity. But the defense ministry is not configured to do this. Historically, apart from its role as a money conduit for politics, it has worked primarily as a resource provider for the military’s demands. It is more a shopping organization than a security arm of government. It has historically never made well-argued policy and still does not. Moreover, the centralized culture (and corruption) means that ministers keep all decision-making for themselves.

Today, the minister of defense de facto lacks real power over Commander-in-Chief Khomchak, who has a direct constitutional command line from and to the president, while the minister has neither. (Some suggest the minister of defense is even subservient to Khomchak.) Before Ukrainian independence, there was effectively no ministry, as anything of significance came by order of Moscow. After independence, this continued, with Russians playing a major part inside the ministry. For example, during 2013 and right up to February 2014, then–defense minister Pavlo Lebedyev was a Russian passport holder. How many senior appointments inside the defense system are still of the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) is hard to judge, but there are a few who are notable for talking a great game to NATO and allies, while afterward ensuring that no reform of significance ever takes place.

Other critical problems are overbearing bureaucracy and a replication of competences. The defense system still works on paper, with brigades sending up to 40 paper returns and reports daily. The General Staff has developed a life of its own. In many functions, such as defense planning and housing, it duplicates the non-delivering defense ministry functions. This lack of a clear focus, responsibility and authority has further aggravated the inability to create positive change. The vertical power structure has been further reinforced by recently adopting the NATO J structure. Now there are nine vertical power groups run by senior generals who answer only to the commander-in-chief. They do not allow formal horizontal staffing without their orders and, usually, signed papers. Despite the war, staff activity of any kind moves with glacial slowness.

Both organizations—the defense ministry and the General Staff—follow two highly developed cultural habits. One is that the process is more important than the result. Hence, when a senior visitor or US adviser such as Gen. Abizaid comes, the visit itself is seen as the work, not the outcome. Whatever is agreed is likely to go no further than the door. Second, the complex and longwinded Soviet-style academic process of finding the right answer by “seeking the correct algorithm” dominates all thinking. This translates into further complicating everything in the system. Simple cannot be acceptable because it must be wrong. The staff turn planning documents into tortuous processes that are totally unworkable. The more complex the better. They do this because if they produced something simple and workable, they would not be considered clever. The latest complex Ukrainian doctrine on how to manage lessons learned is a case in point.[35] Lessons can never be learned formally in the Ukraine military, because it is not acceptable to report failure. Even then, no one can work out who is responsible or will take responsibility.

It is also not clear whether the General Staff or Ministry of Defense ever really see a clear picture of what is happening on the ground.

The Armed Force[s] of Ukraine [have] developed a culture of providing the leadership with reports that would not raise questions and blend with other paperwork. This encourages commanders to report not on the real situation—no matter how bad or good it is— but rather what the leadership expects to hear and what will not create any further hassle.[36]

This has resulted even in serious accident reports being falsified.[37]

To make matters worse, historically, the Ministry of Defense and General Staff have only communicated formally, through long-winded written papers with multiple signatures or necessarily signed by the minister or commander-in-chief himself. This has not changed despite seven years of war and often public exposure of the most ridiculous exchanges that cause national harm.


The Mirage of Civilian Control

After the EuroMaidan revolution in 2014, there was a serious attempt to bring civilian control to the Ministry of Defense. The people did not object, as they knew it was desperately needed. Many civilian experts volunteered to work and created the Reform Office within the ministry. They tried to bring sense to ministry systems in supply and logistics areas such as procurement, food, uniforms, military equipment, housing and fuel.

They additionally started projects to create logistics IT systems to replace the heavy bureaucratic paper monster. But the ministry’s culture of secrecy in all things persisted (to this day); and the Reform Office was never fully integrated, with staff workspaces remaining outside the main Ministry of Defense building. Also, the pre-Maidan organizations inside the ministry remained intact and did not change to reflect the new processes or ideas.

The Reform Office nevertheless did manage to register some successes, and its presence at meetings both in the Ministry of Defense and military committees started to force a stronger focus on modernization and doing things properly. Then–defense minister Septan Poltorak, however, visibly used the Office more as a PR exercise for the reelection of president Poroshenko and Ukraine’s NATO membership drive than for creating real change; moreover, he tended to simply ignore recommendations that did not suit his purpose. Ukraine briefly experimented with appointing a civilian defense minister, Andriy Zagorodnyuk (August 29, 2019–March 4, 2020), but his attempts to curb corruption quickly resulted in him being replaced.

When the next minister of defense, General Andriy Taran, arrived, he immediately closed the Reform Office despite it having strong international backing. He also removed the Civilian Council, which had provided oversight and advice to the minister; and he illegally sacked the key reform advisor, Captain Andrii Ryzhenko, the architect, with US support, of post-Maidan Ukraine’s naval reform. All this happened without comment from the Presidential Office or the cabinet.

Finally, civilian control is severely distorted by the oligarchs. They manipulate the appointment of senior posts throughout government. The current commander-in-Chief, Khomchak, is reputedly associated with billionaire Ihor Kolomoysky.[38] The oligarchs wish to run business non-transparently, which allows them to continue stealing money from the Ministry of Defense budget. They do not want changes toward NATO, and this can be judged by how they distort procurement away from real operational requirements toward big-ticket items in which the oligarchs have financial interests.


Education and Training

Some of the military personnel now study and train toward NATO standards with assistance from the US and its allies. However, this occurs almost exclusively at the tactical level. At the strategic and operational levels, education and training are still predominantly Soviet, including the teaching of Soviet operational art. To become a defense lecturer at Ukraine’s National Defense University (NDU) means devoting four years away from the mainstream military to gain a doctorate degree in military science—a field that does not exist in the West.

All the PhD education for future NDU lecturers comes from the old school. Normal Western practice, in which an officer teaches straight after operations while those lessons are still fresh in the mind, does not happen in Ukraine. Thus, the Soviet cycle of education at NDU continues unbroken. After basic officer school, no effective operational courses exist, as these are classroom-based at NDU. This leaves a comprehensive knowledge gap of vital field work at company, battalion and brigade command levels. Proper staff training also does not happen. Some of the knowledge that might help brigade commanders is taught in a two-year-long course at NDU—but bizarrely not until after completing their command.

A fundamental difference also exists conceptually between the mission command process taught by the US and allies and the orders thinking process of Ukrainian officers. But Ukrainians think it is the same, and allies think the Ukrainians understand Western thinking. Because of the cultural drivers, both sides could not be more wrong.


Defense Industry, Research and Development, and Procurement Support

The best illustration of the government-controlled defense industry is that after seven years of war the tank factory is bankrupt. The second best is that it has taken this many years to create the first national ammunition factory, which, in fact, is still a long way from producing workable artillery ammunition. The publicly owned defense-industrial umbrella corporation, Ukroboronprom, is being reformed and is now officially profitable. But while the government supports this, it does nothing for the independent defense manufacturers who are producing world-class equipment such as modern hybrid-drive armored vehicles, attack drones, anti-sniper radars, command-and-control systems, and technological advancements for both direct and indirect weapon sights. For their own private reasons, the Ministry of Defense and General Staff shun virtually all these advancements. Importantly, these firms are not corrupt.

The official Ukrainian military research and development institutions are still manned with Soviet “leaders” with no knowledge of NATO or English. They are confident in their positions not because they are creative but because first they prepare PhD dissertations for high-ranking defense ministry and General Staff officials (who do not write their own). And second, they form an incestuous grouping with the military staff and defense industry to set up and manipulate unfairly the technical requirements for new equipment and weaponry.[39] This also ensures that they focus on what they already know and do not support possible advancements that might come from outside.



If one takes the General Staff at its word, Ukraine has 25 territorial defense brigades, totaling 100,000 ordinary, private Ukrainians. But how many people regularly go to reserve military training and education is a mystery to society. Even after changes to the Budget Code in 2018, which legally allowed spending on training, it is clear “the authorities lack the desire and understanding of how to finance [territorial] defense.”[40] In reality, there is little, or no training, and the reserves make their dissatisfaction publicly clear. Territorial defense is a public wish. It has been given to the Ministry of Defense to organize but with no change in the defense budget.


Wrong Incentives at Every Level

Come Back Alive sums up the problem of incentives for the forces simply:

In most cases the military is still using the negative motivation system… This legacy is based on an inappropriate attitude to individual servicemen and seeing the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a conscription-based army, despite the declared intentions to make it professional and join NATO.[41]

The NGO further comments, after its recent survey of the army:

The respondents have repeatedly stated that the Armed Forces as an institution has a massive lack of such values as respect, justice, trust, efficiency and rationality, and instead, indifference, humiliation, distrust, ostentation and arrogance are common.[42]

But the non-governmental group suggests change can happen as “such kind of behaviour is very rare for young officers, commanders with combat experience and older people who have experience in international missions and operations.”[43] The problem is keeping these good people serving because on top of the systemically poor value system, the pay scales also provide disincentives to perform: “The existing payroll system is not encouraging servicemen to grow professionally and get promoted and get a higher responsibility.”[44]

Pay is loaded positively for soldiers on operations, but soldiers in barracks receive the same salary as a cashier at McDonalds. This has perverse effects, as married service people cannot possibly support families on the low pay when back in camp. Additionally, training instructors are deemed to be in barracks and, thus, are on the lowest pay for their rank.

The staff often must trawl for anyone to teach courses even if they have no knowledge of the subject. This severely limits the ability to conduct quality training. When there are no foreign instructors present the result is that courses can be run with limited military content. The students all too often know more than those teaching them.


Is Reform Possible?

Reform expert Vladimir Milenski from Bulgaria explains the challenge for Ukraine: The main problem with defense reform is that it is expected to be completed by the defense system itself. To work, the reform process must be separated from defense management because it is this same management that created the failures in the first place. The same top people are now assigned to make changes effectively to themselves. This is like asking them to confess they have been wrong and incompetent (or outright traitors) this whole time. Even if they do want to change, they still want to hold onto to the old system like a security blanket. But this produces “conceptual spaghetti” as new ideas and old ideas cannot coexist. One cannot take the best of each, because they are antithetical.

Defense reform could be assigned to the defense ministry only if there is a good separation between military and civilian authority, with appropriate delegation and personalization of responsibilities in place. This is far from the case in Ukraine (or indeed any Central and East European country), where de facto there is almost total fusion between the political and military at the highest level. De jure everything is fine, until one looks at their laws and see how cunningly they are written to enable this.

Even the Cabinet of Ministers does not have effective power as the commander in chief can easily bypass both the government and the defense ministry more specifically by going directly to the president—the supreme commander. Or, he can just ignore everything he does not like. The ministry budgets and controls the money, but the president can spend it on his own political whims, or at the request of the commander in chief. In a presidential system run like this, there can be no unity of command, clarity of budget or coherence in management. Thus, to work, reform must be controlled and led by legislature and implemented under strict parliamentarian supervision.

But this does assume that that there is a well-functioning democracy with a good system of separation of powers and checks and balances between the legislative and executive. Of course, the parliament will not need to go into micro details. It needs to arrange within law, the missions and key tasks and assign the responsibilities and authorities, so the defense system will deliver as ordered by law. The US (and NATO) hardly touches or supports this difficult legal challenge at all.


US Support

Support in General

Ukraine is a country at war. Yet US support for Ukraine is configured similarly to the support of any other peacetime country in Central and Eastern Europe and using the same tools. This does not work and is inappropriate in multiple ways. Arguably, support for Ukraine should be for a military operation. An unambiguous political and military focus would likely force Ukraine to become more serious as well. Support requires an operational military commander to assess, direct and guide all the disparate US actors and to be the spending focus. This is totally absent, and thus, the support itself is discordant and dissipated.

US support is often lauded by its adherents as the “Gold Standard.” The trouble with this is that it is the Gold Standard for the US but not always for Ukraine or other countries. It could be likened to a guest arriving at a birthday party of vegetarians with a prime, two-pound Texan steak. The present is great for the giver but totally inappropriate for those receiving. The guests, of course, will be diplomatically profuse in their thanks but mortified at the same time. The challenge the US must overcome with Ukraine is that both countries have extremely complex government and security systems, each with a cultural and conceptual base diametrically opposed and antithetical to each other. It could be likened to one being analogue and one digital. Military expert Thomas Young highlights that there is nothing in common between the two.[45]

Today, the US and Ukrainian systems interact intermittently with each other and primarily at the extremities. Contact at the political and political-military level is rare, poorly briefed, often through interpreters and usually with limited positive results. The whole is insufficient for either side to teach the other anything other than superficially. The senior leadership of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is convinced that it has nothing to learn from the West, believing it only must make some slight adjustments to its current system to align it with NATO via adopting meaningless or nonexistent NATO standards. Leaders often speak to themselves about this but ignore incoming messages. Poor results are predictable.

The US support system as it is configured today is simply not designed to deal with this complexity at any single level. The US staff may be deploying the Gold Standard for themselves, but the US problems are systemic, and many, such as short tour lengths and limited pre-training, contain powerful in-built causes of failure. The result of support is all too often a failed task or a misunderstanding on both sides that not only does not help reform but in some cases makes things worse, causing the US to lose the respect it deserves for its efforts.


Human Interfaces: Political Down to Tactical Military

The political interaction with Ukraine since 2014 has never really focused on defense reform but more on what support is available and can be easily provided by the US. Support has been wonderfully strong in parts. However, the discussions and interactions surrounding support of the defense system have usually been left at the non-political and tactical level, assuming that the US Gold Standard equipment and “best practice” tools would solve everything. Since the initial intense activity in 2014 and 2015, high-level discussions, including the Multinational Joint Commission, have also become routine, cursory and over-guided by the bounds of diplomatic nicety. Embassy contacts appear to be limited to the government and senior officials in power at any given time, and thus, US actions have primarily been in response to those interactions.

The Ukrainian government and senior officials are masters at telling people what they want to hear, however. Additionally, many Ukrainian NGOs that brief foreign embassies live off the grants from those same diplomatic missions and so are also suspect in their offerings. The Ukrainian political mantra has been solidly, “We want to join NATO,” and “We are meeting NATO standards.” Neither of those declarations holds up to scrutiny.

The challenge is that at the political level, the US system has simply not dug deep enough or spent enough time trying to understand the beast. The US Embassy has been seriously disadvantaged by moving to “Fortress America” miles from Kyiv’s city center and is now distanced from mainstream political interaction. Casual relations are effectively ended. Formal relations in Ukraine are made more difficult by a combination of the time needed to travel to and from meetings, and a less-than-welcoming US Embassy mired in force protection policies, lack of trust and defense secrecy issues. It is no surprise that the embassy staffers are less and less obvious around town. The US Defense Cooperation Office is nowhere near the Ministry of Defense main building. The result is that in understanding defense reform, the US system barely comprehends the complexity already outlined, nor does there often appear an ability to separate PR nonsense from what is real.

The largest, most active financially and well-informed defense NGO in Ukraine is Come Back Alive. Its staff is on the front line and in units constantly. When asked by the author, in March 2021, if the group ever had contact with the US Embassy or Defense Cooperation Office, its representative replied “never” and laughed. It was a serious question if the US Embassy even knew the NGO existed before a briefing to NATO attachés in the Latvian Embassy about their report on May 26, 2021.

At the political-military level, there appears to be no coherence to US support. No senior officer is focused solely on helping Ukraine reform. In logical terms, Congress should not grant money to defense if that money is not properly focused. The US commander of European Command, who now has added Africa responsibilities, is too busy, and his staff is too far geographically removed to be actively engaged other than in a formal bureaucratic way. The defense attaché team is composed of diplomats who have their own multiple roles to play; they are to a large extent formally controlled by the Ukrainians (probably except for the naval attaché) and are kept far away from the parts of the system the General staff and Ministry of Defense do not want them to see.

The challenge, therefore, is that defense reform is inherently a political problem; but without a strong political and military understanding of the problem and lacking the links to gain that understanding, both sides fail to cross the conceptual divide. So, the US agrees mostly with all it hears, and the Ukrainian side just asks for more weapons. When the Ukrainians do receive them, they “field” them arbitrarily and possess little understanding that these weapons systems will help them little anyway.

But many on the US side—who have a poor grasp of the Ukrainian system—think that this will help. Furthermore, too many visiting senior officials and generals (not only from the United States) who not know the stark reality, come and hand out medals and tell the Ukrainians what a great job they are doing on reform without ever having seen anything real. These contacts were described by one interpreter as meetings of gratitude and praise for two hours with zero recommendations or criticism.[46] These platitudes pander to the Ukrainians’ belief that they are doing well, ensuring that true reform again takes a back seat.


Weapons and Equipment

Most of the money authorized by Congress is for weapons and equipment. Examples that expose the huge challenge of providing effective support are worth noting.

The first is Harris combat radios. These have been supplied to Ukraine in large numbers—as to other CEE militaries. The chief of communications of the Ukrainian Airborne Forces, the unit that has received the most Harris radios, told Come Back Alive[47] that because of the low quality of soldiers, they could not be taught properly. The soldiers would also not take responsibility for the equipment because if they lost anything, they had to pay for it. A brigade staff officer deployed to Donbas in a line infantry brigade confirmed that “signal and communication is the weakest part in battalions.”[48] He continued, “For example we get Harris Radios—but only a few people know how they work. And in day-to-day communication we doesn’t [sic] use them.” The soldiers employ their cell phones because, for them, they work better than the radios, despite the fact that their phones are easily monitored and jammed by the Russians. The Ukrainian incentives for using the US equipment here are wrong, and thus, the US training does not stick. The soldiers would be happier with a cheap old radio that, if they lost or broke it, would not cost them so much.

The second is the supply of Javelin anti-tank weapons. This was more a political gift than a war-fighting weapon. The US government was concerned (quite rightly) that if delivered to the front line, the weapons might either be sold or lost to the Russians. They were, therefore, put into storage near Kyiv 750 miles from the front line. The Ukrainians advertised the weapon as their prime tank killer, both within the military and in PR to the country at large. However, there was no attempt to understand how to use the Javelins if deployed. They would just be spread among the units in a tactical fashion. Amid considerable national fanfare, training was conducted for soldiers. If these were the soldiers who would fire them in wartime, it would be a lucky coincidence not planning; the exercise was just a show. A check with a front-line brigade in a key battle zone on April 2021 showed that its solders had no Javelins and had never seen any.[49]

No attempt has been made to date by the Ukrainian staff (nor apparently the US) to think about strategic uses of the weapon, which could require changes to battle doctrines, structures, tactics or training of commanders at any level to deploy it effectively. Thus, the political and show value (and likely deterrence) was high, but the operational value was no better than that of the anti-tank weapons the Ukrainians produce themselves. The lesson is that any equipment aid must be treated in the same way to how a complex capability is fielded in the US. It should cover all aspects of capability development—from leadership, doctrine and training to organization and logistics. This means rethinking the processes.

US analysts routinely suggest grand schemes for spending Congressional money, such as revitalizing the Ukrainian Air Force with modern F-16 fighter jets[50] Spending money on excess defense article programs like F-16s or Patriot missile defense batteries is deeply alluring for policymakers and even more so for Ukrainians, but it takes no account of the culture, budget and skill sets within the Ukrainian system. Moreover, it takes no account of the “willingness/ability of the Ukrainians to absorb the life-cycle sustainment costs from the get-go.”[51] Strong arguments exist, echoed by the Ukrainian officers leading the fight, that rather than looking for big-ticket items requiring serious change, the US should spend money on supporting and improving the fighting systems Ukraine already has.


Yavoriv Infantry Training

The Infantry training in Yavoriv really has been the gold standard, and most who attend love it. The tactical training, battle discipline and use of the Military Integrated Laser System (MILES), which assists tactical training, are all regularly spoken about by soldiers afterward. But the residual value of the training is heavily distorted by systemic problems on the Ukrainian side. The training is not part of the programmed system preparing units for operations. And no capacity exists for allied instructors to focus unit training, because the Ukrainians often do not know which part of the front they will hold next.

The Ukrainian military system is also predicated on brigades not battalions, so battalions are subunits with no power and limited capacity to act independently. The battalion structure required by the US for training is much larger than any Ukraine has. With the current severe manpower shortages, three or four battalions are required to make up one training battalion.[52] This means that many commanders, who arguably need training the most, are excluded and their soldiers train without them. After the training, the unit is disbanded, and the soldiers return to their respective barracks. On return, they are told to forget what they learned because the official battle pamphlets (that are law) are still Soviet. No coherence exists. Additionally, Ukraine has no systemic ability to take the best soldiers from Yavoriv and make them instructors so that they could then continue to improve things.



Ukraine benefits from advisors at multiple levels, from (previously) General John Abizaid to the Ministry of Defense advisors (MoDA) group supposedly working inside the Ukrainian defense ministry. The challenge is that almost without exception those advisors come from parts of the US system that are large, sophisticated and fully functional; but they are then dropped into a system that is equally complex but outdated and broken, with little human or technical capacity and no authority to carry out change. Former lead MoDA Steve Silverstein comments that the US MoDA program has been poorly led in training and support, while the US Department of Defense office responsible for US policy in Ukraine does not support MoDA efforts. Selection of MoDAs who are truly subject-matter experts has historically been hit or miss. The additional key attribute is being a self-starter and sensitive to relationships and communications. MoDAs are only selected initially for one-year terms, which is ineffective.[53] And many military advisors are chosen for only six-month tours, without preparatory training, which is even less effective.


Courses for Ukrainian Officers in US

Major problems exist for graduates of the US International Military Education Training (IMET) program,, running since 2015. Adm. Kabanenko comments that Ukrainian commanders do not want to send their officers to these courses. Those officers who are chosen are often those with no future perspective in the Ukrainian military, and on return, the system will not put these officers into significant positions or places where they can have influence. They never have an opportunity to implement their knowledge. The senior leadership also demands a different approach from the US with a “close-your-mouth-and-follow-orders” style. This creates cognitive dissonance and stress in the brains of those returning; many leave early. Clearly, the culture needs to change.[54]


Defense Institution Building

After the war began in 2014, the initial Defense Institution Building (DIB) activities—developed by the Pentagon-linked Institute for Security Governance—were conducted by a small group of defense officials and contractors. These contacts were regulars with aims to learn the system, gain trust, and work with Ukrainian defense ministry officials to change key documents and to rewrite laws. Success was extremely slow, but doors were opening. In 2015, DIB management altered its approach and started using more short-term reform inputs from organizations such as the RAND Corporation. These were incoherent. The burgeoning close relationship was lost and has since not been regained.


People, Selection and Training

Many disparate groups of people from the United States arrive ostensibly to support Ukraine. These include the embassy staff (together with the large defense attaché team and the Office of Defense Cooperation), regular Armed Forces, the National Guard, senior officers and defense officials, mid-level defense officials and contractors. With few exceptions, none are properly prepared for this specific task. The system primarily selects those who are suitable for Washington, not those who can deal effectively in Ukraine. In the early stages of support until 2015, it was fine just to be a US passport holder to be heard. But as the Ukrainians have gained knowledge from the war, they are less and less willing to accept weakness from foreign advisors and interlocutors.

Success with trying to help Ukraine reform is commensurate with political will. This means gaining high-level trust over time, the ability to develop personal contacts at all levels and possessing relevant professional knowledge specific for this complex task, not just US-centric “Gold Standard” offerings. These should be the selection criteria.

Gaining trust is probably the hardest to achieve. This takes at least six to seven years to develop, three years is just scratching the surface of relationships and understanding and the six-month postings of many US military personnel is seen as a grievous insult. Those who only have single Gold Standard solutions to offer or have not been to war are soon identified and ignored. Contractors who come for one or two weeks are seen as a joke unless they return repeatedly over many years. To Ukrainians, this shows that the US does not take the country or the war seriously. These transitory officers are sidelined.

Required skills also include the ability to speak English in a way that translators can translate. To be blunt, most US and Western military leaders speak a unique language (often foreign to even native-English speakers) that Ukrainian translators cannot deal with without constant exposure. When antithetical concepts are being considered, after translation, the reverse of what is being said can easily be both sides’ takeaway.

Many advisors who show an ability to deal with the complexity and harshness of Ukraine are not kept in the job long enough to gain trust. Or, because there is no proper oversight, they are rarely recognized by the US system for their value.


US Bureaucracy

The US system has little or no agility to deal with fast-moving support requirements. Consequently, many important areas where the US could provide help are long gone by the time the system responds. Support is over-bureaucratic, slow and turgid. For example, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency requires over a month to process paperwork. The US government appears to have no systemic trust in its frontline workforces. Ideas must go through multiple levels of checking, sometimes even all the way to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, before they are accepted; or they may simply disappear into the bureaucratic black hole. Congressional funding rules have been simplified, but perverse incentives still work. Bidding for innovative support means increasingly more work for an already excessively overworked chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC).

A key challenge is that the ODC chief is the prime driver of support, but he is far too overloaded to follow the strategic needs of the Ukraine defense system, other than superficially. He is expected to provide strategic thinking but without the support to do so. As such, there is a clear need for US political and military agents to ensure that support is coherent.


Conclusions of US Support and What to Do Next

Defense Reform: A Political Activity

The US system needs a Ukrainian advisory team of native Ukrainians with connections who can tell Washington what is actually going on in the country. They must be people with no oligarchical, political or financial interests except the well-being of Ukraine.

US support for Ukraine should be treated as a military operation. Historically no one has been responsible for the effectiveness and efficacy of the $2 billion in public money, and this needs to change. A robust, no-nonsense one- or two-star commander with war fighting credibility should be nominated to oversee US support and provide military advice to the president of Ukraine. Moreover, he should be nominated as a full-time commander who actually resides in Ukraine. The officer needs to be sufficiently close to modern combat developments to understand the future needs of the Ukrainian military. This person must work separately from the US Embassy to avoid being diplomatically sensitized into supinity. This uniformed officer should provide the military strategic overview and guidance for the support coming to Ukraine from all US agencies.

Additionally, US political overview must include hard conditionality. Without this, there will be no change. The Ukrainian responses to US aid are all surface-level and more for PR show than real. The senior leadership in Kyiv is willing to accept everything Washington offers; but when it comes to calls for real change, the Ukrainian side tries to keep the US and other allies at arms-length. Unless the Ukrainian president is convinced of the need for reform and change, nothing will happen. Political messaging needs to be clearer than now. Ambiguity surrounding possible US support helps no one.

The DIB program from the Institute for Security Governance, the MoDA, and military advisor programs all need a total rethink from first principles based on the multiple challenges described above. If support for Ukraine becomes an operation, then the decision-making process and consequent stultifying bureaucracy should be streamlined through hard delegation of spending to the front line to make the support process more agile and responsive to needs.

Comprehensive training is required for most US personnel coming to Ukraine. Any who will be involved in complex areas such as policy, planning, doctrine, training or defense reform in general need a full understanding of the Ukrainian defense system, culture, societal and social mores, the antithetical nature of concepts and how this relates to change, change management skills in general and simply, how to speak to be understood.


Military Support

A number of concrete and general proposals for more effective support to the Ukrainian Armed Forces are worth considering.

The Ukrainian military needs ammunition, especially for its artillery.

All US personnel must be appropriately trained and briefed on the environment and cultural norms before deploying.

Tour lengths should be maximized. One military person living and working in Ukraine full time for five years is worth 100 short tours.

A need exists for a general officer course to help Ukrainians bridge the gap with NATO, the West and to reform.

The equipment and methodological support for frontline troops must concentrate on refining what is already there with simple improvements, not trying to create a Western analog. This could involve providing equipment to upgrade current systems such as artillery, surveillance and communications. Effective training could be supported with a huge influx of simulators from field equipment such as MILES and complex trainers for brigades and battalion headquarters to supplying barrack equipment for developing skills like low-level air-defense shooting, driving and indirect fire observation.

The training support for frontline soldiers en masse should be reassessed from first principles and other models considered, such as the brigade training advisor model used in Afghanistan.

Conditionality for all tactical-level support should reflect the need that it must be embedded in the main Ukrainian training processes of units deploying on operations and career paths. Training support should not be given as “in addition to”—how Yavoriv is now—since this does not create systemic improvement. It is also vital to modify the training of initial officers and recruits. It is a lost cause trying to reeducate ethics and values, tactics, and leadership skills after they have been badly taught in the first place.

Operational battle courses that teach the Western style in the field are needed for company, battalion and brigade commanders.

Fundamental changes are needed to doctrine and the education system. This cannot be left alone, as it adversely affects all US support and thus wastes serious money. The Ukrainian education and training system needs new doctrine, pamphlets and instructors and integral support for a sustained period. Setting up a regional staff college similar to the Baltic Defense College, initially run by the US, would be extremely useful. Other considerations may be a US or UK two-star officer to run the Ukrainian Defense University for five years, with a clear mandate to clean shop top to bottom.

Finally, the US should devote more political energy and finance to supporting those civil society NGOs and activists serving frontline needs. The knowledge gained from them would greatly help US advisors improve support and provide vital understanding to help change the main system.


Appendix A: Special Operations Forces Reform—Little Operational Gain So Far

The following survey was compiled from the author’s experiences, comments from US officers who have served and worked in Ukraine with the Ukrainian special forces since 2014, and conversations with two current and one retired member of the Special Operations Forces Command HQ. This overview of the Ukrainian SOF is a microcosm of the larger failure of Ukraine’s defense reform as a whole.

Until 2016, a standalone SOF did not exist in the Ukrainian defense forces. The units were all part of the various vertical structures within the Army, Air Force and Navy. No coherent SOF existed, nor did Ukraine even have a doctrine about what the SOF should be and do. When the war broke out in 2014, the special elite units that did exist were effectively the best-trained infantry in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. They were not used for classic SOF tasks but were sent where most pressingly needed to engage in tactical battle in eastern Ukraine. Much of the initial US support provided in 2014–2015 was wasted, as the system had no SOF structures or understanding and the senior-level Ukrainian military had little or no grasp about what US and NATO were offering or even suggesting.

In 2016, the Army SOF was formed. These units were effectively a consolidation of forces under one commander. This included the special infantry units, psychological operations (Psy Ops) forces, and some reconnaissance detachments. Huge resistance existed, however, from the General Staff to the idea of creating a separate SOF command as a fifth branch of the Armed Forces, at the same command level as the army, parachute forces, navy, and air force. This was despite considerable US and NATO lobbying for Kyiv to do so. A command headquarters was set up, but it had limited authority. The one officer who had real SOF experience and could have truly built up the capabilities of the force, then-colonel Serhii Krivonos (now a general), was “relegated” to deputy commander and thus effectively sidelined during much of the conflict.

The new commander, General Ihor Luniov, a parachute officer, was unimaginative but reliable; and over four years, he successfully consolidated the special forces into one organization. The US is highly commended by the Ukrainian SOF for being a serious part of this reform. The SOF is now inarguably the most reformed and professional organization in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. One battalion has passed NATO certification, and, as of May 2021, this unit is on-duty for the NATO Response Force. However, a serving SOF officer ironically commented that they were certified for NATO but not used by Ukraine.

The reasons for this are many and political. In the first place, special forces of any kind have historically not been trusted by post-Maidan Ukrainian governments. For example, the former Russian-backed Ukrainian government extensively employed the elite Interior Forces during the 2014 protests, when many demonstrators died. Thus, these elite units are not seen as the sharp military tool that the US or UK views their own special forces. Like the rest of the system, the SOF still suffers internally from legacy thinking and the daily whims and orders of an unreformed General Staff. When they are deployed by the General Staff, it is not to conduct SOF tasks but usually to serve on the front line in a tactical reconnaissance role alongside other infantry battalions. The SOF headquarters has no operational responsibility for the war, so it has no capacity to develop or properly use the SOF units as a strategic weapon.

Another problem is that there is yet no proper legal basis for the SOF in Ukraine. No one, including the Ukrainian president, can take responsibility for using the SOF in strategic or deep-strike tasks. With the current legislation in force, if SOF personnel kill a Donbas separatist not in self-defense, they would be liable for the murder of a Ukrainian citizen and could face prosecution by the Ukrainian legal system. Lacking an adequate SOF law and, consequently, SOF doctrine, special forces units have no proper operational tasks or tasking. Therefore, the SOF is not really considered by the National Security Council or Ukrainian General Staff as anything more than enhanced infantry.

The SOF is also not prescribed fully in the laws on intelligence in Ukraine. So as an operational intelligence tool, these elite units need special authority to be used. This authority is often not forthcoming from risk-averse officers in the system. As a result, whatever the US teaches other than soft skills, there is at best a random chance of Ukrainian special forces being used in combat.

Obstacles also exist in the Ukrainian defense ministry’s Central Military Intelligence (GUR). This organization effectively runs its own life and uses its own reconnaissance units on the front lines outside other parts of the Armed Forces. The SOF is judged to be a competitor for power and resources both by the GUR and other branches of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The GUR has an operational focus with authority to conducting operation, whereas the SOF still do not have that operational freedom or even authorization.

Without deep-attack and strategic doctrine, equipping and training also remains at the tactical level, and resources are limited to simply low-level support. Little or no coordination also exists with the naval and air assets needed to develop proper understanding of how to conduct strategic tasks beyond a single, short annual exercise.


US Support

The SOF desperately needs US support to be raised from the tactical to the political, legal, strategic and operational levels. This will require much greater study and understanding of the SOF and the surrounding environment. The current level of US advocacy to develop the Ukrainian special forces is simply too little and too weak.

SOF officers are disappointed about the poor response times for any backing they need. In conversations with SOF officers for this paper, many commented that when they have a serious requirement it takes two years for the US system to produce what is needed; and often by then, the moment has passed. This is not only an SOF conclusion.

The Ukrainians wish for a much more visible US SOF presence in the country to better educate the leadership but also to act as a visible deterrence to Russia. Some also suggest that Ukrainian facilities could be used to train US and NATO SOF operatives, and this would help enhance cooperation and interoperability between Ukraine and Allied forces.



Unless there is a concerted educational push at the political level in Ukraine, the SOF will remain a tactical-level organization with no ability to develop further as a strategic tool. It will not show value from the allocated US resources or provide Ukraine with effective operational benefit.


Appendix B: Artillery Ammunition for Ukraine—The Big Challenge

The loss and failure to resupply gun and rocket artillery ammunition has been a highly contentious issue in Ukraine. Rarely a day goes by without a comment about it in the Ukrainian media. The failure is multilevel, with government not making it a priority, the defense ministry only including resupply in small numbers in its annual procurement plan and the government-owned defense corporation, Ukroboronprom, failing completely to deliver a working ammunition plant.

The country since 2015 has lost huge amounts of ammunition in warehouse explosions (see list below). It would now appear that these are linked to and of the same antecedents as those in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic (Czechia).

In late 2019, the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) set up a parliamentary commission of inquiry to study the circumstances of the five most significant explosions at ammunition depots between 2014 and 2018, in Ichnia, Kalynivka, Balaklia, Svatove and Kryvyi Rih.[55]

The commission deputies suggested the main version of the explosions in Balaklia was an attack by an unmanned aircraft on one stack of ammunition storage. The explosions then set off subsequent detonations in nearby storage facilities. Despite obvious evidence to the contrary, the Russian-leaning military prosecutor Anatolii Matios, in this and other cases, blamed the Ukrainian security forces of negligence. One apparently innocent major, Olexandr Lytvynenko, was arrested and finally “confessed” his guilt.[56]

After this, the chairperson of the Rada investigative commission, David Arahamiya (who coincidentally also chairs the president’s party) sided with the prosecutor, suggesting the explosions in Balaklia were the result of buried explosives with special charges. This version of events was rejected outright by the former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, Viktor Chumak, after he checked the security services’ reports.

It is difficult not to come away with the impression that the parliamentary inquiry was set up more to confuse the public and turn the blame away from Russia than to uncover the truth. It also did nothing to raise the national priority of replenishing the huge amounts of lost ammunition. The country is now ammunition poor in most artillery types but especially 152-millimeter (mm) rockets.


Failure to Produce New Ammunition

Upon its independence on December 2, 1991, Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union seemingly unlimited amounts of artillery ammunition. The government-owned factories remained in place but effectively as conduits for laundering government money. As there was little need for new ammunition, by 2000, the country suffered a major deterioration in everything to do with producing defense stocks. Additionally, Ukraine saw a vast loss of human expertise into other better paying industries. After 2014, some factories were also lost to the Russians in Donbas, although these had long stopped working. Early investors, such as Oerlikon, left well before the war started. Ukrainian artillery expert Vladimir Shchetinin puts things bluntly: “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, for 30 long years, Ukraine has ceased to be a country developing modern weapons.”[57]

For several decades, the legacy was squandered. Shells were disposed of, sold, stored, drowned and exploded. The deterioration intensified as the US and NATO spent considerable funds on helping reduce weapon and ammunition stocks as part of anti-proliferation efforts (something this author saw NATO perversely continue after the war was in full flow).

Regeneration of capacity is not so simple. To support the current Ukrainian defense system would mean recreating Soviet technology. But since this time, artillery has developed hugely with new gunpowder, steel, forms of ammunition and smart fuses. Also, manufacturing tools and management systems have made colossal development gains with modern technologies. In effect, recreating the old system is now impossible. For Ukraine, the redevelopment of any new capacity is a major task; and it has only started to appear in the government-owned defense production sector after more than seven years of war. Private businesses that could achieve new production are either not supported by the Ukrainian government or are unwilling to invest while the prevailing climate of corruption continues.

Former Ukrainian ministerial adviser Andrii Ryzhenko told this author that there were several early attempts after the war started in 2014 to build a factory to produce new ammunition and repair an old factory. A state defense order allocated $8 million for the project. But that money apparently disappeared. A scandal followed that was connected with former deputy minister of economic development Viktor Brovchenko. He was arrested, but charges were never laid.

In 2014, the private firm DynCorp intended to invest an unspecified amount of US funding to upgrade a Ukrainian state factory to repair and produce ammunition, including gun ammunition. The offer came to nothing likely because the identified risks of corruption were too high. The US weapons manufacturer Bushmaster was also planning to invest money to build a factory to produce 12.7–155 mm munitions. But after some studies, Bushmaster decided not to proceed with the project.

The state-owned company Artem now says it is capable of producing both 152 and 155 mm shells by the end of 2021. However, Artem is not due to start testing until June 2021, and it needs to use test facilities in Slovakia. The company’s chairperson noted that the firm problems producing Ukrainian 152 mm ammunition shell casings and special chemicals such as metal powders and high explosives.[58] According to Shchetinin, they also have not really solved the technical problems of design.[59] Artem could apparently produce only 14,000 rounds a year. This is a small number if the war becomes serious again. No state defense order exists for ammunition[60]; so given the heavy bureaucracy, none will likely be bought from this company before mid-2022.


Five Main Warehouse Explosions

Krivoy Rog, Dnipropetrovsk region

In March 2014, in Kryvyi Rih, the tank warehouse caught fire. The tanks inside were fully fueled and loaded with ammunition. As a result, two (at the time extremely precious) T-64 tanks were destroyed. No one was injured. Police blamed faulty wiring.

Svatov, Luhansk region

On October 29, 2015, a fire broke out at the ammunition depot near Svatov. This detonated 3.5 thousand tons of ammunition of various calibers, including scarce rocket launcher ammunition. Fifty-nine high-rise buildings and 3,314 houses were damaged. One civilian woman and three servicemen were killed and 16 injured. Then–chief military prosecutor Matios noted, “The cause of the fire at the ammunition depot in Svatovo was the negligence of officials, including the chief of this warehouse.”

Balaklia, Kharkiv region

In March 2017, in Balaklia, a fire broke out at the military arsenal followed by a detonation of ammunition and further explosions outside the arsenal. About 36,000 people were evacuated from the affected area around the artillery depots. Three hundred and ninety-two buildings were destroyed, affecting over 3,900 city residents. The fire was extinguished after three days.

The subsequent investigation found witnesses who saw something dropped from an unmanned aerial vehicle, causing the detonations.

Kalinivka, Vinnystsia region

In September 2017, a fire in the ammunition warehouse at Kalynivka was followed by detonation of ammunition. More than 30,000 people were evacuated from the military unit and settlements in a 10-kilometer zone. All modes of transport were closed. The explosions lasted two days, stopping road and rail traffic. In November 2017, the Military Prosecutor Office blamed the senior officer for failing to control access. It said employees of a private enterprise entered the area where ammunition for tank guns was stored carrying “flammable substances.” A Ukrainian officer was prosecuted, although it is now believed that those who entered were GRU.

Ichnia, Chernihiv Oblast

In October 2018, a fire forced the evacuation of 12,500 people from the center of Ichnia and 30 surrounding villages. As a result, over 300 buildings were destroyed or damaged. Luckily, there were no casualties.



No quick solution is available. The heavy artillery ammunition previously stored in Ukraine is largely gone. The stocks of Soviet ammunition in other former Communist East European countries have also been degraded by Russian actions. Poland still has such stocks, but it also needs them for its own defensive purposes. Ukraine could possibly make a change to 155 mm (NATO standard) systems to replace the 152 mm systems they have. But new 155 mm guns would be expensive. Perversely, Kyiv just ordered second-hand refurbished 152 mm weapons from Czechia, which may arguably exacerbate existing ammunition problems. The problem of heavily reduced rocket launcher ammunition remains unsolved and apparently beyond Kyiv’s ability to rectify.

A major US step could be to lease or sell cheaply 155 mm M109 systems plus spares, of which the US still has many. At the gun-crew level, Ukrainian artillery units are well trained and could adjust to the M109 quite quickly. This would give the Ukrainians the options of purchasing two calibers of ammunition, with 155 mm being greatly more effective.



[1] Why Are Servicemen Leaving the Armed Forces? NGO Come Back Alive, research project on the Ukrainian army, Public Edition, 2021, 18.

[2] Yuriy Rudenko, War by the Book: War.RU (Kyiv, Ukraine: DIPA, 2020), 21..

[3] Nazarov Victor, interview with Angelika Rudenko, Crimean News, 2014,–bVw1Uq6EiI1wLc.

[4] Rudenko, War by the Book, 110–117..

[5] Rudenko, War by the Book, 233–240..

[6] Bassarab Michaelo, “About Legitimacy,” Facebook, April 3, 2021.

[7] Grant Glen, “How Ukraine Can Build an Army to Defeat Putin, Kyiv Post, January 31, 2018.

[8] Ihor Kabanenko, “Ukrainian Military Reform: Can the Armed Forces Escape Their Soviet Past?” (virtual, Jamestown Virtual Roundtable Discussion), comments at 18:30, March 25, 2021,

[9] Serhii Sobko (colonel, former brigade commander of 128th Brigade and hero of Ukraine), Interview with Tashaya Trofimova, 4Echo,

[10] Lyudmila Zhukova, “Fighters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Are Fed with Rot with Mold: A Scandal Erupted in the Network,”, March 26, 2021,

[11] Ukraine Defense and Security Committee, Verkhovna Rada, “Special Meeting on Military Food,” April 14, 2021,

[12] Serhii, interview. Officer talks about the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU) commander refusing to let him study in the US and broken promises about promotion and how the lack of proper career planning is commonplace in the AFU.

[13] Radetzky Ruslan (National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption), discussion with author, May 3, 2021.

[14] Joint Staff officer (name withheld), Facebook Messenger discussion with wuthor, April 26, 2021. The officer has been on many international exercises but has been punished 11 times for his pro-NATO views. He is now taking a commander to court for this.

[15] Marco Serg, Facebook post on the increasing deaths from Russian sniper fire and the lack of military support for the front line, May 3, 2021.

[16] Ihor Kabanenko (admiral, former deputy minister), discussion with author, May 4, 2021.

[17] Save Life, website,

[18] Oleg Panfilovich, Statewatch: A Number of Businesses Have Complained to the Government About the Lack of Funds to Fulfill a Defense Order,,

[19] Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, website,, accessed April 18, 2021.

[20] Arturs Pereverziev, “Defense Secrets vs. Army Strength?: NATO’s Advice to Ukraine,” video interview with Bigus, April 12, 2021,

[21] Pereverziev, “Defense Secrets vs. Army Strength?”

[22] Solomiia Bobrovska (member of Ukrainian Parliament and Defense Committee), notes to author, April 2021.

[23] “Law on Defense Procurement Brings Ukraine Closer to NATO—Kuleba,” Ukrinform, July 17, 2020,

[24] Mariana Bezuhla, Comments on the State Defense Order, Facebook, April 23, 2021.

[25] Senior Ukrainian artillery commander (name withheld), discussion with author, April 10, 2021.

[26]Roman Pagulich and Roman Rebriy, “Ammunition Famine of the Armed Forces: What Do Soldiers Have to Shoot in Economy Mode?,” Zbroya Info,

[27] Gotev Georgi, “Bellingcat Connects the Dots Between Czech Explosion and Bulgarian Poisoning,” Euractiv,

[28] Ukrainian former Ministry of Defense advisor (name withheld), email to Glen Howard (president, Jamestown Foundation), April 10, 2021.

[29] Nazarov Victor, “Threatened with Invasion: Was It Possible to Limit Russia’s ‘Appetites’ in Crimea in 2014?,” interview with Angelika Rudenko, Crimean News, 16 March 2021,–bVw1Uq6EiI1wLc.

[30] “The President Had a Telephone Call with the Secretary General of NATO,” Official Website of the President of Ukraine, April 6, 2021,

[31] Irakly Jhanashija (advisor to Parliamentary Defense Committee and former Ministry of Defense Reform Office member), Facebook Messenger discussion with author, April 29, 2021.

[32] Glen Grant and Vladimir Milenski, “Identifying the Challenges to Defense Reform in Central and Eastern Europe: Observations from the Field,Defense & Security Analysis 34, no. 2 (June 2018): 191–209,

[33] Scores can be found for most countries at: compare-countries/.

[34] Grant and Milenski, “Identifying the Challenges to Defense Reform in Central and Eastern Europe: Observations from the Field.”

[35] Ukraine General Staff (2020), “Doctrine on the Study and Implementation of Experience in the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” VKP, 7-00(01).01.

[36] “Why are Servicemen Leaving the Armed Forces?” Come Back Alive, 15.

[37] Brigade commander (name withheld), discussion with author, Kyiv, 2017. The discussion centered around the fact that the Army commander had ordered the brigade commander to rewrite an accident report about a mortar accident in which solders had died. Reportedly, the minister (Stepan Poltorak) would not have liked the conclusions.

[38] On Ties, “Ruslan Khomchak—Known for the New Chief of the General Staff of Ukraine,”, May 22, 2019,

[39] Private defense industry leaders (UARPA, ELEKS, Turingismus, Arey and others), discussions with author, 2017–2021.

[40] Eugene Rudenko and Eldar Sarakhman, “Guerrillas for Putin. Who and How Will Defend Kyiv in the Event of a Full-Scale Russian Invasion?” Ukraine Pravda, April 2, 2021,

[41] Come Back Alive, Why are Servicemen Leaving the Armed Forces?, 18.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., 21.

[44] Ibid., 20.

[45] Thomas-Durrell Young, Anatomy of Post-Communist European Defense Institutions. The Mirage of Military Modernity (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 7, 40, 44, 52, 160, and 205.

[46] Adelfi Criseyde (pen name, retired sergeant, former Ukraine military interpreter and defense blogger), discussion with author, May 3, 2021.

[47] Come Back Alive, discussion with author, March 30, 2021.

[48] Staff officer (name withheld, deployed on the Donbas front line), discussion with Author, April 25, 2021.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Stephen Blank, “Upgrading Ukraine’s Air Force Could Deter Russia,” UkraineAlert, Atlantic Council, April 6, 2021,

[51] Jon Chicky, “Black Hawks to Ukraine,” email to Glen Howard (president, The Jamestown Foundation), April 24, 2021.

[52] Military staff (Come Back Alive), discussions with author, Kyiv, March 30, 2021.

[53] Steve Silverstein, discussions with author, April 2021.

[54] Ihor Kabanenko, Volodymyr Havrilov and Glen Grant, “Ukrainian Military Reform: Can the Armed Forces Escape their Soviet Past?” (video discussion with Glen Howard, president, The Jamestown Foundation), March 25, 2021,

[55] “The Work of the TSC to Investigate Explosions at Art Warehouses Was Extended for 6 Months,” Ukrinform, April 30, 2020,

[56] Igor Burdiga, “Terrorism or Negligence: How Explosions at Military Depots Are Being Investigated in Ukraine,” Hromadske, October 9, 2018,

[57] Vladimir Shchetinin, “Prospects for the Development of Ukrainian Artillery,”, September 28, 2020,

[58] Vladimir Shchetinin, “By the End of the Year: Artem Will Deliver a Batch of 152-mm Shells of the Armed Forces,”, March 2, 2021,

[59] Vladimir Shchetinin, various discussions with author, 2021.

[60] Pagulich and Rebriy, “Ammunition Famine of the Armed Forces.”