As tensions mount, memories of the Russian army quickly overpowering the Ukrainian military during the 2014 annexation of Crimea have resurfaced. But Ukraine has significantly improved its defense capabilities – with a lot of help from NATO countries.
Britain added more concrete pressure this week when it announced it was sending military equipment to Ukraine, mainly short-range anti-tank missiles for self-defense. already the US gave the green light to the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to send US-made weapons to Ukraine. Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas confirmed that his country is sending defense and other aid to Ukraine in an attempt to thwart a Russian attack.
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Last year, the Biden administration approved the transfer of $650 million worth of US weapons to Ukraine, $200 million in December 2021 alone. There is little doubt that Ukraine is increasing its arsenal in the event of an attack. Russian.
But can the Ukrainian military really oppose a Russian force consisting of hundreds of thousands of ground troops, in addition to tanks, equipped with short-range missiles and supported by naval and air forces?
A ‘Rude Awakening for Kiev’
In 2014, during the annexation of Crimea, Russian soldiers easily passed through Ukrainian defenses. At that time, “the Ukrainian army was in a rather disastrous state”. “The events of 2014-2015 were a rude awakening for Kiev, which then embarked on major military reforms,” explained Nicolo Fasola, an expert on security issues in the former Soviet territories at the University of Birmingham, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
It was an effort that initially worked. The Ukrainian army has grown from about 6,000 combat-ready soldiers to nearly 150,000, according to a US Congressional Research Service summary conducted in June 2021.
Kiev’s financial efforts to modernize its military over the past seven years have been significant. The share of the national budget devoted to military expenditure has increased from 1.5% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in 2014 to over 4.1% in 2020, according to World Bank data. This share of defense spending is larger than most NATO countries and similar to Russia’s military spending.
US anti-tank missiles and Turkish drones
Furthermore, Ukraine is no longer alone against Russia. Since 2014, NATO as an organization, as well as some member countries, “have provided considerable aid, amounting to about $14 billion,” Fasola estimated.
The US has been the main supplier of military equipment such as radio equipment, military transport trucks and more than 200 Javelin portable anti-tank missiles. Great Britain, Poland and Lithuania also supplied Ukraine with defensive weapons.
Even Turkey helped Ukraine by selling its famous Bayraktar TB2 drones. “While US-supplied weapons such as the Javelin anti-tank missiles have garnered most of the headlines in Ukraine’s arsenal, Kiev’s less sensationalized support of Turkey raised alarms in Moscow,” the Washington Post noted over the weekend.
The use of Bayraktar TB2 drones in Libya, Syria and especially in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has really made headlines. But Friedrich notes that while “it is true that these machines proved decisive in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is difficult to know what impact they could have on a possible conflict with Russia, as the configuration is very different.”
Trained and Motivated Troops Abandon Soviet Legacy
Ukraine’s military modernization is not just quantitative or restricted to material hardware. “There has been enormous progress in terms of training and combat readiness,” Gustav Gressel, an expert on Russian military affairs at the Council of European Foreign Relations, said in an interview with FRANCE 24.
According to Gressel, one of the main weaknesses of the Ukrainian defense system came from the military doctrines that were developed during the Soviet era. “Moscow therefore knew perfectly well what to expect and could prepare accordingly,” he explained.
The Soviet defense legacy highlights the importance of military training provided by NATO instructors at Ukrainian bases, such as the Military Law and Order Service (MLOS) training center, established near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, close to the Polish border. “It allowed officers and soldiers to unlearn old reflexes that are predictable for Moscow,” Gressel said.
Another asset of the Ukrainian army comes from its soldiers. “Most of them enlisted in 2014-2015. So it’s a voluntary act to defend the motherland, which means they are highly motivated and have high morale,” Glen Grant, a senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation who worked in Ukraine on the country’s military reform, said in an interview with FRANCE. 24. “Among the Javelin missiles, drones and troop morale, the Ukrainian army has become a formidable opponent,” he added.
This is particularly true in the eastern region of Donbass, where Ukrainian troops have gained experience in a conflict lasting more than seven years against Russian-backed separatists.
Russia’s air advantage
But for Ukraine, the situation in Donbass is double-edged. “It is a low-intensity conflict, very close to guerrilla warfare, and this has led the West and Kiev to focus on military doctrines and equipment suitable for this type of confrontation, whereas in the case of an attack by Russia, it will likely be very different.” said Fasola.
In concrete terms, for example, “the Americans provided sniper rifles to the Ukrainian army to fight Russia, which uses the Donbass as a training ground for its own snipers,” Gressel noted. But this type of weapon will not be of much use against Russian tanks crossing the border.
Military experts believe that the modernization of Ukraine’s air force has been marginal and aviation remains the weak point of Ukraine’s defense capability. Most of the country’s bombers and fighter jets are over 30 years old, and the pilots are poorly trained and underpaid. “That’s why, if Russia decides to attack and use its planes correctly, air support should quickly give them a decisive advantage, despite all the modernization of the Ukrainian army,” Gressel said.
Assessing the ‘cost-effectiveness of an offensive’
If Russia decides to invade, Friedrich acknowledges that “it will be very difficult for Ukraine and its allies to maintain a balance of power.”
But as unrest over Ukraine gathers pace, military deliveries such as British anti-tank missiles could play an important role, according to Dumitru Minzarari, an expert on Eastern Europe at the German Institute of International Affairs. “They have strategic and material value,” said Minzarari in an interview with FRANCE 24,″ he explained.
Furthermore, “the Ukrainian army can inflict additional damage on Russian invading forces with this equipment, which can have a deterrent effect. The UK-supplied anti-tank weapons are a good illustration of this: any Russian offensive will inevitably involve armored vehicle maneuvers, and if Ukraine has modern weaponry to combat them, that could lead Moscow to reconsider its assessment of the cost-effectiveness of a offensive”, concluded Minzarari.
That is why Grant of the Baltic Security Foundation believes it is important to provide the Ukrainian army with “everything that can strengthen the mobility and resilience of the brigades, such as ambulances, transport vehicles, radios. “Because the longer Ukraine can make the fight last, the bloodier it will be for Russia, which will be even more deterrent,” he said.
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