The war in Ukraine has highlighted Russia’s shortcomings, but it has also provided a blueprint for transforming an underpowered and outnumbered army into one capable of taking on a military colossus in record time. “Of course, NATO’s support is important, but no NATO member state has ever faced a power like Russia on the battlefield,” says Ukrainian army captain Victor Tregubov. Ukraine’s armed forces have driven Moscow’s invading army out of Kharkiv and forced Russian troops to withdraw from the Donbas region in the east and Kherson in the south. Kyiv’s troops had already proven themselves adept at defensive strategy; now they are demonstrating that they also have sound offensive tactics.
According to experts consulted by EL PAS, the basis of Ukraine’s recent counter-offensive successes is that its troops are better trained, and its units are more cohesive. Another of the most basic reasons for the momentum shift on the ground in Ukraine is the protests in Russia after Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of the country: the motivation of a volunteer army defending their homeland will always be greater than that of a partially conscripted force invading another country. “What is at stake for Ukraine’s soldiers is clear; protecting their homes and families and preventing their country from being wiped off the map,” says Mykhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network think tank.
Moscow was mistaken from the start if it thought it was dealing with the same Ukrainian military as in 2014. When the Kremlin annexed Crimea and supported a pro-Russian separatist insurgency in Donbas, the Ukrainian army consisted of a few thousand regular troops and was severely underfunded. Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president from 2010 to 2014, was deposed during the Maidan uprising for undermining the country’s defensive capacity by implementing the doctrine that Ukraine should act as a neutral buffer between Russia and the West. However, the Donbas conflict saw the birth of Ukraine’s armed forces, primarily through the formation of volunteer battalions.
According to Captain Tregubov, the army of 2014 and the Ukrainian military of 2022 are incomparable in reality. “The Russians appear to have regressed. When you look at images from the Crimean annexation, they look like a modern army, while we look like a ragged bunch. It’s now the other way around; their equipment is from a different era.” Tregubov gives a simple but crucial example. He was given a pair of old Soviet boots that destroyed his feet while serving in Donbas in 2015. He is now dressed in the finest military boots available in Europe. “Our uniforms and equipment now meet NATO standards,” says Vlad, a 24-year-old soldier with the 24th Mechanized Brigade who spoke to EL PAS on condition of anonymity. “Every unit in our regiment has thermal scopes, NLAW anti-tank missile launchers or grenade launchers: it wasn’t like this before.”
In July, EL PAS witnessed firsthand the civilian contribution to the war effort on the front between Dnipro and Kherson. Every Ukrainian position in the area had a shared application developed by software engineers that provided real-time information on the location and identity of the enemy units confronting them, even describing the terrain they were in and the weapons they could use.
While Ukrainian technology outstrips that available to the Russian army with civilian assistance, the Ministry of Defense’s financial support is equally important. The war consumes nearly half of Ukraine’s annual state budget, which is made possible by economic assistance from its allies, primarily Europe and the United States. The member states of the European Union have pledged €28 billion to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW). The US has currently committed to providing €15.2 billion and the UK €2.5 billion, according to the IfW.