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Security Assistance Worked in Ukraine

Ukraine shows how US and NATO efforts to train local partners pay off when they mirror local priorities.

Two weeks in, Ukraine’s military is proving surprisingly effective against the Russian advance.

Ukraine’s military is doing well because for the past eight years, since the 2014 Russian invasion of the Donbas, it was rebuilt in collaboration with NATO partners. These reforms and investments paid off.

Here’s why US and NATO security assistance succeeded in Ukraine and what we can learn for similar efforts to build local militaries in the future.

Defense Reform in Ukraine

Ukraine shows what can get done when local partners – from top civilian and military leadership to soldiers at the tactical level – are highly motivated to increase military effectiveness.

Before 2014, the Ukrainian military had little incentive to reform. It was neglected, undertrained, and underfunded. But that changed quickly after Russia instigated and supported a war in the Donbas.

Ukrainian serviceman walks along trench
A Ukrainian serviceman walks along a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near the village of Talakivka, Donetsk region, on November 24, 2021. Photo: Sergey Volskiy/AFP

Ukraine’s elites overcame previous ambivalence and made joining NATO a constitutionally mandated priority.

Defense reform in Ukraine had two goals: to increase the immediate combat effectiveness of the military and achieve alignment with NATO standards.

Some reforms, like aligning doctrine with NATO standards, meet both goals. Other reforms, like ensuring civilian control and democratic accountability of the military, must be implemented to join NATO but would not necessarily increase Ukraine’s combat effectiveness in the short term.

I focus on reforms aimed at combat effectiveness.

Increasing Combat Effectiveness

Despite the challenges of actively fighting a war at the same time, Ukraine made significant progress on reforms that could quickly increase combat effectiveness and that were the least painful for elites to implement.

In the short term, Ukraine’s defense reforms included stopgap measures that could be implemented quickly, like using volunteers and additional funding to improve logistics by reinforcing existing legacy Soviet institutions.

Major changes to defense institutions, however, take time.

Despite initial obstacles, Ukraine was serious about reaching NATO standards for military interoperability. Ukraine, supported by NATO partners, implemented reforms to command-and-control and defense planning to align them with NATO procedures.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accelerated the process, appointing a new minister of defense in November 2021 that many viewed as more willing to enact painful reforms.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

What didn’t get accomplished also shows the importance of local agency. Elites were less willing to reform the often corrupt defense procurement process and the military-industrial complex, though a new law passed in 2020 had the potential to reform defense procurement.

NATO Training and Advising Mission

While changes to defense institutions were important, they happened slowly and were not fully implemented. Where NATO countries made the biggest immediate difference was running a training and advising mission that invested in the human capital of Ukraine’s military. This effort succeeded because Ukraine’s military was highly motivated to improve.

In 2015, the United States and its NATO partners (Canada, Poland, the UK, and Lithuania, among others) began training and advising at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center. At Yavoriv, advisors trained a cadre of Ukrainians who then, with advisor supervision, trained Ukrainian units — first companies and battalions, then full brigades.

Ukrainian soldiers trained at the center and were then deployed to the Donbas. International partners worked on individual training and basic level collective training, while US advisors focused on military decision-making processes and staff functions.

US advising efforts took well-prepared and trained individuals and individual units and helped them overcome weaknesses in staff planning, staff operations, and command-and-control at the battalion and brigade levels.

This included an emphasis on decentralized decision making instead of the Soviet top-down model, which has really paid off in the Ukrainian military’s current performance.

Training also included an introduction to NATO doctrine in maneuver warfare (although Ukraine’s force structure still has a way to go to support NATO doctrine).

Ukrainian Special Operations Forces

Advising also occurred at the ministry of defense level and at other locations in Ukraine.

Advisors from Special Operations Command Europe helped stand up and train their Ukrainian Special Operations Forces (UKRSOF) counterparts.

Advisors working with UKRSOF whom I spoke to for my research commented that their counterparts were “hungry to learn and eager to improve,” and noted their increasing proficiency in conducting special reconnaissance and direct action.

Ukrainian special forces and a US Air Force JTAC training
Ukrainian special forces and a US Air Force JTAC communicate to a helicopter for exfiltration during a raid at Exercise Combined Resolve 14 at Hohenfels, Germany, September 24, 2020. Photo: Sgt. Patrik Orcutt/US Army

In 2019, a UKRSOF unit successfully passed assessments to become part of the NATO Response Force – a high mark of competence.

While detailed information on what UKRSOF are doing in the conflict right now is understandably hard to come by, it appears they are successfully harassing advancing Russian units, gathering intelligence in front of Ukrainian infantry, and preparing the public for resistance to potential Russian occupation, as they are designed to do.

‘Building a New Ukraine’

As a result of these efforts, US advisors noted a huge difference between the Ukrainian military of today and the Ukrainian military of 2015. Training and mentoring by NATO countries nurtured young, knowledgeable, and dynamic Ukrainian brigade commanders, officers, and non-commissioned officers.

While the Ukrainian military struggles with a Soviet legacy among its top leadership, US military advisors to Ukraine told me how the mindset had begun to shift among younger officers at the rank of colonel and below.

One anecdote illustrated this well.

The advisor put out his cigarette butt on the ground, and his Ukrainian counterpart said to him, very seriously, “Don’t do that, put it in the trash.” “Sasha, are you serious?”, the advisor asked. His counterpart replied, “Yes, we’re trying to build a new Ukraine.”

Reform in Ukraine’s Hands

By necessity, the design of the security assistance program encouraged Ukrainians to lead. To avoid conflict escalation, there were important limitations on US and NATO advisors. They couldn’t accompany Ukrainian units into combat, for instance, and no NATO troops were coming to the rescue.

Other design elements similarly furthered local agency. Ukrainians led the training at Yavoriv, and US advisors refused to write doctrine for Ukrainians since they had to internalize it for themselves.

Until 2022, US assistance to Ukraine was comparatively low. US military aid was only $1.8 billion since 2001, while by comparison, aid to Afghanistan in FY 2020 alone was $3.9 billion.

Under the Trump administration, weapons like the Javelin anti-tank missile were provided but had little impact on the conflict because they were kept far from the front lines.

Limitations on security assistance kept the burden of reform clearly in Ukrainian hands. But most importantly, Ukraine shows how US and NATO efforts to train local partners pay off when they mirror local priorities.


Headshot Alexandra ChinchillaAlexandra Chinchilla (@AlexCecylia) is a Rosenwald Fellow in US Foreign Policy and International Security and Niehaus Postdoctoral Fellow at The John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.

She received her Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Chicago and will be an Assistant Professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, starting in August 2022.

Alexandra’s research focuses on international security, security cooperation, and proxy war with a regional interest in NATO, Russia, and Eastern Europe.


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