Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images
- Following Russia’s 2014 attack, Ukraine’s military set out to improve and modernize its forces.
- Kyiv’s decisions during that period helped it hold off Moscow’s assault in late February 2022.
When Russia annexed Crimea and stoked a conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014, Ukraine’s military was in poor condition, with only 6,000 combat-ready troops out of a 140,000-strong force.
In the years that followed, Ukraine’s military underwent a period of preparation that helped it blunt the full-scale invasion that Russia launched in February 2022.
According to a report by the Royal United Services Institute assessing the first five months of the war, decisions made by Kyiv during those years modernized its hardware and enabled its troops to hold off Russia’s assault.
Artillery in recovery
Ukrainian troops fire a howitzer in the Zaporizhzhia Region in December 2022.
Dmytro Smoliyenko / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Recognizing Russia’s artillery capabilities, which caused roughly 90% of Ukraine’s casualties between 2014 and 2022, Kyiv strengthened its own artillery force, which was systematically reduced prior to 2014.
Ukraine created new artillery units that doubled its total strength by February 2022 and gave it “the largest artillery force in Europe after Russia,” according to the report.
Although Russian sabotage between 2014 and 2018 destroyed much of Ukraine’s artillery ammunition, when the full-scale invasion started, Ukraine still had enough ammunition “for just over six weeks” of high-intensity fighting, the report says.
Ukraine also modernized its artillery force by introducing US-made radars, equipping artillery units with drones for reconnaissance and targeting, and introducing an intelligent mapping system that reduced artillery units’ deployment time by 80%. Training for artillery troops was also intensified.
As a result, the report says, “the amount of time to destroy an unplanned target was reduced by two-thirds” and the time it took to open counter-battery fire shrunk by 90%.
Tanks and anti-tank capabilities
A tank turret is repaired at the Kyiv Panzer factory in August 2015.
NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Most of the 30 tank battalions — totaling about 900 tanks — that Ukraine had in 2022 were formed between 2014 and 2018, a period during which Ukraine added 500 tanks to its fleet.
However, Russia’s tanks still outnumbered Ukraine’s nearly four to one when the invasion started.
To compensate for that disadvantage, Ukraine’s military adapted its tank doctrine and started using tanks for indirect fire, like artillery pieces, with high-explosive fragmentation rounds.
To do this, Ukrainian tankers use “special guidance devices” and other modern technology along with “automated transmission of information to other tanks,” which made it possible to be highly accurate at ranges of up to 6 miles and reduced the timed to make corrections to fire coordinates down to a few seconds, according to the report.
A Ukrainian tank in the city of Slavyansk in July 2014.
GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images
“This technique blurs the line between tanks and artillery” and “allows tanks to concentrate fire over a wide area while they can manoeuvre without the protection and screening needed by artillery pieces,” the report says.
Many of the tanks that Ukraine fielded in the 2010s were older models that had been upgraded, as Kyiv lacked the funds for new tanks. At the beginning of the invasion, Russia’s tanks were generally better, with higher-quality protection and sighting systems and ability to engage targets from longer range, though those advantages “were less relevant” at shorter range, the report says.
While experts have said that attention on anti-tank guided missiles tends to overstate their role in halting Russia’s initial advance, Ukraine invested heavily in ATGMs after 2014, buying thousands of launchers and missiles and setting up the School of Anti-Tank Artillery to train troops on them.
While Western-made ATGMs were quickly delivered at the start of the war, maintenance issues and their limited numbers meant they weren’t the “primary means” of wearing down Russian forces, the RUSI report says.
The battle of the skies
A Ukrainian MIG-29 fighter jet at the Vasilkov air base in November 2016.
Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo
After 2014, Ukraine tried to modernize its air force, and when the invasion started, it had about 50 MiG-29s and 32 Su-27s, as well as a few Su-24s and Su-25s, but it was outmatched and outgunned by Russia’s Aerospace Force in every respect, according to RUSI.
Therefore, Ukrainian planners focused on survivability by training units to disperse aircraft from main bases to secondary airfields. Crews were also trained to maintain and repair combat-damaged planes under conditions they would face in the field.
As Ukrainian pilots were well aware of their aircraft’s limitations and of “the fearsome capabilities” of Russia’s anti-aircraft weapons, “they trained extensively for low-level flight over Ukrainian territory and were highly familiar with the exploitation of terrain to evade radar detection,” the RUSI report says.
A Russian Su-35 downed by Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv region in April 2022.
Press service of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff/Handout via REUTERS
Ukraine also prioritized its air-defense capabilities. Its radio engineering troops, tasked with warning of an air attack, “reorganised after 2014 to ensure they could detect targets at 300-400 km, and direct fighters and anti-aircraft missile troops against them,” the reports says. Those units also received better radars.
Thus, at the onset of the invasion, Ukraine had continuous radar coverage of its border with Russia and its own airspace, though its Black Sea coverage was “less extensive.”
Russia’s air force failed to account for those improvements, “leading to tactical errors in the employment of radio-electronic attack,” RUSI says.
Additionally, Ukrainian air-defense missiles forced Russian pilots to fly low, where they could be targeted by Ukrainian troops with modernized shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, the report says.
Russian aircraft still have some technological advantages, but their operations are now mostly limited to airspace over Russian-controlled territory.
More and better-trained troops
Ukrainian troops outside the city of Debaltseve in the Donetsk region in December 2014.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian troops deployed to the Donbas region had developed “an intimate understanding of the battlefield” over the years and were able to prepare for Russian escalation.
At the tactical level, Ukrainian troops were “confident” they would be better prepared and trained than their adversaries, according to the RUSI report, which added that Ukrainian troops who had observed Russia’s treatment of Ukrainians in the occupied territory were “highly motivated” to prevent Moscow from taking more of it.
Yet, at the formation level, Ukrainian commanders were concerned about Russian artillery limiting their ability to maneuver and hitting their supply lines. This problem was exacerbated by a personnel shortage, which in turn meant Ukrainian forces were spread thin along the Donbas frontline.
Prior to 2022, Ukraine’s military had struggled to retain troops, but high turnover during those years meant Ukraine had a large pool of civilians with military training. To capitalize on that, the country created the Territorial Defense Force.
Recruits receive first-aid training during an exercise with Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force in February 2022.
Dominika Zarzycka/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
The TDF was established in January 2022 and didn’t have time to receive heavy weapons and the necessary command-and-control mechanisms. While they were initially an “impediment in many cases,” Ukrainian commanders have sorted out many of those issues, and the TDF’s role has increased from “rear-area security to ground holding to contributing manoeuvre brigades to offensive operations,” the report says.
Manpower problems and limited equipment at the beginning of the war meant Kyiv had to make difficult decisions about which troops to deploy where. “The critical question therefore was whether the professional body of [Ukraine’s military] could hold for long enough for a wider mobilisation to bolster Ukraine’s defences,” the report adds.
Thanks to Ukraine’s years of preparation, those troops did hold long enough.
When the advancing Russians met the Ukrainian defenders early on February 24, they had been surprised by what their commanders in Moscow had ordered them to do, while Ukrainian troops “had been psychologically and practically preparing for this fight for eight years,” the report says. “The interaction between these variables would be decisive in determining the outcome of the first 72 hours of fighting.”
Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master’s degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can contact him on LinkedIn.