Ukraine’s military was unprepared and caught off guard when Russia seized control of Crimea with only token resistance in 2014. If Vladimir Putin had launched an invasion back then, Russian forces quite likely would have taken Kyiv within a few days.
In 2014, Ukraine’s Chief of the General Staff, Viktor Muzhenko, described the situation as “an army literally in ruins.” The Ukrainian army was totally demoralized. Around 70% of the Ukrainian forces stationed in Crimea swore allegiance to Moscow after Russia annexed the peninsula, whose population was primarily ethnic Russian.
Perhaps that explains why Putin was overconfident that Russian forces would quickly overwhelm Ukraine’s military in 2022. Maybe that’s why Russian troops brought their dress uniforms for a victory parade in Kyiv. Putin overlooked that Ukraine had spent the past eight years reforming its military and preparing for the day when Russia might launch a full-scale invasion.
And a key role in transforming Ukraine’s military into a modern fighting force was played by U.S. Army advisers at a former Soviet base near Lviv in western Ukraine. Here’s an overview of the training facilities available at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center—International Center for Peacekeeping and Security:
Starting in April 2015, U.S. soldiers deployed to the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine mission trained up to five battalions of Ukrainian troops per year at the Yavoriv base. In Yavoriv, U.S. military advisers, including Army Green Berets and National Guard troops from various states, trained more than 27,000 Ukrainian soldiers. The top Ukrainian trainees were then deployed to serve as instructors within other Ukrainian units.
But the training was not just about teaching battlefield tactics and techniques to Ukrainian troops. “The American mission in Yavoriv is focused on the professional transformation of Ukraine’s armed forces; specifically, helping the Ukrainians ditch the rigid, hierarchical chain of command traditions they inherited from the Soviet Union,” wrote a correspondent for the veterans’ website Coffee or Die, who visited Yavoriv in June 2021.
In the past, the role of noncommissioned officers in the Ukrainian military in battlefield decision-making had been virtually nonexistent. The Coffee or Die correspondent, Nolan Peterson, wrote that the training model was the U.S. military chain of command that “decentralizes decision-making from the upper ranks, teaching junior officers and non-commissioned officers to take the initiative and make tactical decisions based on battlefield realities.”
“It takes time because it’s actually an entire cultural shift. It’s a completely different way of thinking. … They’re surprised when they find out how far down we push those decision-making abilities, and how we maneuver those below the platoon-leader level,” said Capt. Sean Kelsey of the Washington (State) Army National Guard, whose Stryker armored fighting vehicle combat team was deployed to Yavoriv at the time.
“The overall mission is for Ukraine to be interoperable with NATO partners and NATO nations. And (to be) independent,” Kelsey added in the interview for Coffee or Die.
As late as Feb. 2022, about 150 members of Florida’s Army National Guard—Task Force Gator—were at Yavoriv training Ukrainian forces in reconnaissance, on using newly acquired shoulder-fired weapons systems, and on how to prepare their less experienced fighters who had never handled a rifle before.
One training exercise involved the use of M141 bunker-buster weapons which the Biden administration had provided to Ukraine just a month earlier. One Task Force Gator soldier, who took part in the M141 exercise but was not authorized to speak to the press, commented on Facebook that the Ukrainians were “tough and skilled hombres. The Armed Forces of Ukraine get a vote in the direction of their future.”
An unspecified number of special forces with Special Operations Command Europe were also training their Ukrainian counterparts. The Defense Department ordered the U.S. troops to leave Ukraine on Feb. 12, less than two weeks before Russia launched its invasion.
On March 13, Russian forces fired several dozen cruise missiles at the Yavoriv base, killing at least 35 people. Ukraine was using the base to train foreign volunteer fighters.
UkraineWorld, an English-language Ukraine-based multimedia project, in an analysis on the one-month anniversary of the Russian invasion, said that among Putin’s “deadly mistakes” was underestimating the Ukrainian armed forces.
The successful occupation of Crimea played a nasty trick on the Kremlin. Its leaders sincerely believed that the Ukrainian army was not combat-effective, was poorly equipped and commanded, and was poised to fall to pieces after just one serious blow. ... This false perception resulted in truly suicidal tactics by Russia's invading forces: narrow tank columns rolling over long distances with no support. Why bother with air and infantry escorts if no resistance was expected? ...
The Ukrainian Armed Forces have not simply retreated or resisted passively, but have shown that they are more than a match for the Russians, capable of active mobile tactical defense and sound strategic planning. They have also demonstrated unsurpassed capacity for combined-arms warfare, coordinating of unmanned combat aircraft, artillery, and infantry.
UKRAINE’S PRO-RUSSIAN PRESIDENT LEFT THE COUNTRY DEFENSELESS
The pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych won Ukraine’s presidency in a disputed election in 2010—with the help of U.S. political consultant Paul Manafort. Yanukovych strengthened and boosted pay for the elite riot police force, the Berkut, who brutally suppressed internal dissent. Its members were accused of killing more than 100 protesters during the Euromaidan Revolution in February 2014 that ousted Yanukovych from power.
But Putin’s puppet hollowed out Ukraine’s military, turning it into “a depleted, neglected and underfunded force.” He ended military conscription in 2013—Ukraine had 184,000 troops in 2012, but two years later, that number had dropped to 130,000, and Yanukovych’s plans called for reducing the military to half that size. Ukraine’s defense minister estimated that only about 6,000 of those troops from a rapid reaction unit were actually prepared for combat in 2014, according to a New York Times story.
The Times reported:
The Ukrainian Army was all but worthless—rife with corruption and Russian spies, and made up largely of “skeleton” battalions of officers with just a few men. About 1% of the equipment was manufactured in the past decade.
Muzhenko said that 75% of all equipment being used by the Ukrainian armed forces was more than 20 years old and had grown obsolete.
A Ukrainian Marine officer, Lt. Yevgen Zabrodsky, who had been serving at the Naval Headquarters in Sevastopol in 2014, described the humiliating fall of Crimea in a Jan. 2015 article published on a U.S. Army website. Among his duties was helping calculate precautionary measures against a possible incursion by Russia. But after Yanukovych took office, Zabrodsky said the Russian defense plans were scrapped as part of “military reforms.”
“When Yakukovych came to the president’s post, he started to say, 'No, no, no guys,'" Zabrodsky recalled. "’Russia's our friends, don't even think about that, stop doing this.’”
UKRAINE’S NEW GOVERNMENT INTRODUCES WIDESPREAD DEFENSE REFORMS
When Ukraine’s newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, took office in June 2014, Crimea had already been annexed and the Ukrainian military was barely holding on against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region. At the time, Ukraine’s armed forces had many of the same problems that plague today’s Russian invaders, said Liam Collins, founding director of the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy, West Point. From 2016-2018, he helped Ukraine reform its defense establishment.
Collins wrote on The Conversation website, a nonprofit, independent news organization: “Corruption was rampant, troops were not getting paid and basic supplies always ran low. Overall logistics and command were also inefficient.”
There were certain steps that Ukraine took to upgrade its military. Within months, Poroshenko had reintroduced military conscription. Ukraine raised its defense budget by almost 25% in 2018. And by 2018, Ukraine’s armed forces were larger and better equipped than ever before, numbering 200,000 active duty military personnel, according to a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ukraine had inherited about 30% of the Soviet Union’s defense industry when it became independent following the dissolution of the USSR., but only about 30% of that production was earmarked for the Ukrainian military. In 2009-2013, Ukraine was the world’s eighth-largest arms exporter in the world. And Russia was its third-largest customer, after China and Pakistan, according to a 2014 Carnegie Endowment report.
Russia was reliant on Ukraine for helicopter engines, transport planes, and half of the components for Russia’s ground-based ICBMs. But after the annexation of Crimea, Poroshenko imposed a ban on all military-technological cooperation with Russia, halting nearly all exports of weaponry and military equipment.
Although the procurement system for Ukraine’s state-owned defense conglomerate Ukroboronprom remained rife with corruption, Ukraine began earmarking an increased percentage of its defense production to its own military, and by 2019, Ukraine was only 12th among global arms exporters. Ukraine also started purchasing and importing weapons from other countries, including dozens of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, which played a key defensive role in the first phase of the current war.
U.S. MILITARY INSTRUCTORS BEGIN TRAINING UKRAINIAN TROOPS AT YAVORIV
Ukraine’s own efforts were not enough. The Ukrainian government had revised its strategic military doctrine to identify Russia as the country’s top security threat and needed to transform its military with the objective of being able to defend against a full-scale Russian invasion, according to the Coffee or Die feature.
Poroshenko had set an ambitious goal of modernizing Ukraine’s armed forces to reach NATO standards by 2020. The ultimate goal was to prepare Ukraine for NATO membership. The Obama-Biden administration responded to Poroshenko’s request for help in training and modernizing Ukraine’s military. On April 20, 2015, 300 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade began training members of the Ukrainian National Guard at the Yavoriv Training Center, which was once a meeting place for military leaders of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-led counterpart to NATO.
The training center was the responsibility of the U.S. 7th Army Training Command, based in Grafenwoehr, Germany. Poroshenko thanked the U.S. paratroopers in a speech at the opening ceremony: “Dear generals, officers, sergeants, and American Soldiers, [a] combined exercise of such scale and content is being held, probably, for the first time," the Ukrainian president said. "Our meeting today is a symbol of our new partnership and a new future."
Initially, the U.S. trainers conducted what amounted to advanced basic training classes to prepare Ukrainian troops for combat against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region. The fighting had devolved into static World War I-style trench warfare with artillery and rocket attacks, tank skirmishes, and snipers targeting soldiers.
So the exercises involved teaching such basic skills as cutting through coils of concertina wire, using encrypted walkie-talkies, searching for improvised explosive devices, building tank defenses, and saving the lives of wounded soldiers. In the ensuing years, the training exercises got more complex. Here are Ukrainian soldiers conducting a Nov. 2016 exercise in carrying out an air assault:
In 2020, Ukrainian troops honed their urban warfare skills with the help of advisers from the Illinois Army National Guard. The exercises included fighting block-to-block in a large population center, tactically entering residences and buildings, and conducting house-to-house searches.
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Nickels, who had extensive experience in urban missions in the Iraq war, said in an interview on a U.S. Army website that the Ukrainian soldiers were making “quick progress.” And prophetically he added: “From my conversations with Armed Forces Ukraine Soldiers, urban operations have been a big part of their current conflict in the past and may be again in the future.”
Ukraine was not a member of NATO, but Yavoriv, in effect, became the equivalent of a NATO training base.
UKRAINE’S MILITARY GETS TRAINED TO DEFEND AGAINST A RUSSIAN INVASION
Military personnel from the U.S., Britain, Canada, Poland, and several other NATO members eventually broadened the original mission at Yavoriv to prepare Ukraine’s armed forces “to employ maneuver warfare as a defense against an outright Russian invasion,” according to a Coffee or Die reporter who visited the base in June 2021.
A cadre of 300 Ukrainian instructors took over the role of training recruits in basic combat skills. The U.S. troops transformed from trainers to advisers during combat drills. As tensions with Russia increased, Yavoriv was the site of a multinational two-week training exercise in July 2021, dubbed Three Swords-2021, involving more than 1,200 troops and more than 200 combat vehicles.
Here’s how Reuters described it: “Helicopters provided air support, armored personnel carriers rolled through fields, and soldiers fired at enemy targets ... as part of a large military exercise hosted by Ukraine and also involving the United States, Poland, and Lithuania.”
U.S. Green Berets and members of the Europe-based 10th Special Forces Group stationed at Yavoriv worked with the Ukrainian military to set up and train commando units to carry out unconventional warfare and guerrilla tactics against Russian invaders. And Ukrainian troops were regularly participating in even larger NATO training exercises in Germany, with the most recent one taking place in Dec. 2021.
That exercise, known as Combined Resolve XVI included approximately 4,600 soldiers from NATO and non-NATO countries—Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States.
And in June-July 2021, the Ukrainian Navy and the U.S. Sixth Fleet co-hosted the annual Sea Breeze exercise on the Black Sea, operating out of the port city of Odesa.
The exercise focused on amphibious and land maneuver warfare, diving operations, maritime interdiction operations, air defense, search and rescue missions, and anti-submarine warfare, according to a U.S. Navy press release.
The Navy said it involved the largest number of participating nations in the exercise’s history, with 32 countries from six continents providing 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operations and dive teams.
And finally, there was the joint exercise that so many of us wish could become reality today, but the risks are considered too high. In Oct. 2018, Operation Clear Sky was held at the Starokostiantyniv Air Base in western Ukraine in which F-15 Eagles from the California Air National Guard flew sorties with Ukrainian Air Force MiG29 and SU-24, 25, and 27 warplanes. Pilots from seven other NATO members also participated.
”The purpose of the exercises is to increase the level of interoperability of our combat aircraft with the air forces of the United States and other member states of the alliance,” said Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, who attended the exercise.
ZELENSKYY: “RUSSIA DIDN’T KNOW WHAT WE HAD PREPARED TO DEFEND OURSELVES”
Over the past eight years, Russia retained the Soviet chain-of-command model. Corrupt oligarchs and politicians lined their pockets with money intended for defense procurement. Ordinary soldiers pilfered gasoline to the extent that fuel was referred to as the Russian military’s “second currency,” according to a story in Politico.
The invaders found themselves battling a Ukrainian military with high morale and strong motivation to defend against an existential threat to their country. Many of the Ukrainian troops had combat experience from the war in the Donbas. And they were well-equipped and well-trained.
It seems like it was a colossal failure of Russian intelligence to overlook this. Or maybe Russian military intelligence was afraid to deliver bad news to their leader, or Putin chose to ignore reports because he was so arrogant and overconfident.
In a March 18, 2022, video address, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed his gratitude to U.S. President Joe Biden for his “new and effective support” for Ukraine. Zelenskyy added that he couldn’t reveal all the details of the support packages received from the U.S. and other countries. He said:
“This is our tactic. It is our defense. Our adversary shouldn’t know what to expect from us. The same way they did not know what would be waiting for them after February 24. They didn't know what we had prepared to defend ourselves and how ready we were to take the heat.
"The invaders thought they were going to Ukraine, which they had seen before, back in 2014 and 2015. The country they constantly corrupted and the one they were not afraid of. However, we are different."