The national security strategy of Ukraine that was adopted in September 2020 refers to many levels as well as threats and challenges, and also specifies Poland as a strategic partner. In the military dimension, however, the implementation of the strategy may be difficult. Despite rapid development and modernization, both the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the arms sector are struggling with numerous problems, mainly financial and political.
The national security strategy of Ukraine. The new strategy is considered to be more coherent and better prepared than the previous one, adopted in 2015 under the presidency of Petro Poroshenko. The main element of continuation is the confirmation that Ukraine’s strategic goal is to strengthen cooperation and eventually obtain membership of the European Union and NATO (this corresponds to an amendment introduced to the Ukrainian constitution at the beginning of 2020). However, unlike the previous document, the new strategy indicates the hierarchy of international partners. The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and France are to be the priority; Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Poland, Georgia and Turkey are to be the strategic partners. This is a good signal for Poland, as it was not mentioned at all in the previous strategy.
As has long been the case in many other countries, the strategy also takes into account the concept of comprehensive (multidimensional) security, which emphasizes not only traditional – that is, political and military – threats and challenges. Therefore, it includes issues such as development disparities and climate change. In the internal dimension, it indicates that Ukraine is facing problems related to corruption, the rule of law and the low institutional efficiency of the state.
The strategy proposes to intensify economic reforms (investments, changes in the law) and reforms to the energy sector (integration with EU markets, diversification, increasing energy efficiency). It emphasizes that Russia is an aggressor, but that the conflict with it can only be settled peacefully – although the document does not refer to the Normandy Format or the Minsk agreements, which may suggest that Ukraine no longer has much hope for these initiatives. The strategy also emphasizes developing the ability to adapt to the changing security environment, as well as building deterrence/containment capacity. This potential is to be built through the development and modernization of the armed forces (along with the reserve and territorial defense), the expansion of the defense industry and the continuation of reforms aimed at adjusting the Ukrainian defense sector to the standards of NATO, with which Ukraine has been trying to deepen relations consistently and for a long time. However, this may be a difficult task.
Armed forces. Ukraine inherited an army of almost a million from the Soviet Union, equipped with over 9,000 tanks and approximately 1,500 aircraft. The young state, struggling with many problems, had neither the ability nor the need to maintain such an army, which in any case was demoralized by the decay and collapse of the Soviet empire. To have done so would also have been contrary to international obligations; for example, the CFE treaties adopted by Ukraine. The army was faced with the same problems as the entire state: mismanagement, corruption, identity crisis, underfunding, low levels of public trust, and so on.
In 2014, the Ukrainian armed forces numbered just over 100,000 people, of which the combat value, according to various sources, was at most around 35,000. The annexation of Crimea also revealed another problem: the defection of Ukrainian soldiers and seamen to the Russian army and navy was caused not only by their unstable loyalty to the Ukrainian state and the paralysis of the command system, but also, and perhaps more so, by living standards. The main reason for the demoralization of the Ukrainian army was the low material status of the military and many years of neglect on the part of the state, which left the infrastructure and equipment in a terrible condition.
As a result, in the initial phase of the conflict in Donbass, voluntary units, usually equipped and even armed with the support of the public and local government organizations, took on a significant burden of the fighting. Citizens also supported the regular armed forces, providing them with equipment, clothing, medicines, food, and so on. This did not increase trust in the state and the army structures.
The turning point was probably the failure of the Ukrainian units in the so-called “Ilovaisk Cauldron” in summer 2014. Ukrainian volunteer battalions (from the National Guard and Territorial Defense), supported by units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Armed Forces of Ukraine, met not only with separatist forces, but also with armored-mechanized battalion tactical groups of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. As a con-sequence, according to various sources, from 200 to over 400 Ukrainian soldiers were killed, and a similar number were left wounded or missing. Several hundred captured Ukrainians were often brutally treated, and many did not survive.
The defeat at Ilovaisk had a great psychological effect on both the public and the authorities. It showed the scale of the decay and ineffectiveness of the army, but also its determination and will to fight (the Ukrainians suffered such heavy losses because they refused to lay down their arms and tried to break through the encirclement). It thus marked a turning point in the development and morale of the Ukrainian armed forces. Currently, they number about 250,000 people (including around 200,000 uniformed personnel) and have already undergone restructuring, changes in the command system and a significant part of the staff, and replacement of uniforms. They have also managed to gain considerable social trust.
Ukraine has adopted a 10-year plan of deep modernization of the armed forces. Regardless of this, their equipment is being modernized; and wherever possible (e.g., in the case of communications), adapted to NATO standards. New weapons systems, such as anti-tank guided missiles, armored vehicles and thermobaric grenade launchers, are being introduced consecutively. Prototypes of advanced systems are being developed – for example, armed drones, ballistic and cruise missiles – and work is underway on the production of tanks without Russian components (before 2014, tanks were produced in Ukraine in cooperation with the Russian arms industry).
In addition, a plan to rebuild the fleet’s potential and build a coastal defense system based on Scandinavian solutions is being implemented. For this purpose, two boats have already been acquired from the U.S.; these previously served in the Coast Guard. The Americans will also provide Ukraine with fast patrol and assault boats. Next, the UK will grant a credit (and transfer technology) for the construction of 8 missile boats, and France will provide 20 fast patrol boats.
There is also a program for the modernization of aviation, which is in a particularly difficult situation: all the aircraft of the Ukrainian air force were manufactured in the Soviet Union, and the age of the oldest, according to the Ukrainian air force commander, is 52 years. The program assumes a bridge modernization of the existing aircraft, and ultimately the acquisition (in the West) of multi-role aircraft and unmanned systems, as well as the replacement of transport aviation and the helicopter fleet.
Defense industry. Ukraine also inherited from the Soviet Union a third of its military-industrial complex (employing 2.7 million people), including shipbuilding, rocket, space, radio-electronics, aviation, armored vehicles and small arms industries. However, it was part of a larger whole which, as a result of the collapse of the USSR, ceased to function, and then suffered from all the problems that the Ukrainian state faced: corruption, politicization, unclear rules of investment and management, lack of money, struggles of oligarchic clans.
Still, it is the most developed branch of the state-owned economy – but largely based on Soviet technological know-how. Ukraine is still one of the largest arms exporters (although to a large extent it is used arms). For the entire period from 1991 to 2019, Ukraine ranked 12th in the world. In the record-breaking year of 2012, it managed to climb to 4th place; currently it is 21st (SIPRI data). For comparison, Ukraine ranks only 82nd on the list of arms importers (2019), although this is a significant rise, indicating an increase in purchases; when Russia annexed Crimea, it was 118th.
The main player in the Ukrainian arms market is still the state-owned company Ukroboronprom, established in 2010 and encompassing around 130 entities. In 2018, it was ranked the world’s 71st-largest arms exporting company, selling weapons worth USD 1.3 billion. However, like many Ukrainian companies, Ukroboronprom is encumbered by corruption and acts in a non-transparent manner that often deters foreign partners.
Its importance has relatively decreased. In 2019, the Ukrainian arms sector was already 60% private, and the liberalization of regulations and simplification of procedures have allowed for easier export, with the most important market to date – that is, Russia – being replaced by Asian and Middle Eastern states. Despite the loss of many industrial plants located in the Donbas, and despite the many problems of the Ukrainian economy mentioned above, the defense industry is developing because it has significant potential, its production is in demand (since 2014 it has been increasingly supplying the Ukrainian armed forces), and thanks to its experience and traditions.
Perspectives. The Ukrainian defense sector is still being reformed, especially in terms of adjusting standards and procedures to NATO requirements. The success of these reforms can be seen in, for example, the reconstruction of the command system, personnel changes or amendments to regulations, such as the law on intelligence, adopted in fall 2020. Defense spending is growing: while in 2014 the defense budget amounted to USD 1.9 billion (2.2% of GDP), it is currently around USD 5 billion (3.4% of GDP). One should also consider external aid: in the post-2014 period, only the United States provided Ukraine with military aid worth approximately USD 1.6 billion.
However, the armed forces modernization program is considered unrealistic, mainly for financial reasons. The cost of replacing multi-role aircraft alone is estimated at over USD 8.5 billion. It is worth noting that Poland, with an army only half as large, has a defense budget of approximately USD 12 billion; and Russia, Ukraine’s main antagonist, spends USD 65 billion. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, in the draft budget for 2021, planned defense spending was slightly reduced, while the budgets of the secret and security services were increased. In this context, the political instability of the state is a bad signal, as is the growing influence of pro-Russian forces and circles, including in decision-making centers (e.g., the President’s Office). The continued absence of the long-announced reforms to the Security Service of Ukraine and territorial defense, the lack of a new military doctrine and the failure to take action against Ukroboronprom (the liquidation of the state giant was announced at the beginning of 2019), are all worrying. Probably the most effective strategy in this situation will be to continue the process of adjusting to NATO standards, because some changes will thus be forced by external pressure.