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Ukraine’s military has defied expectations in its war with Russia, and many analysts attribute its success to U.S. help. But the mere fact of receiving aid is no guarantee of a positive outcome. After all, the United States provides security assistance to many countries with mixed results. Billions of dollars in aid and decades of training, advising, and institution building did not stop the armies of Afghanistan and Iraq from collapsing. Smaller scale efforts around the world have produced so-called Fabergé egg armies, militaries that are expensive to build but easy to crack.
One of the main reasons security assistance has succeeded in buttressing the Ukrainian war effort but failed elsewhere has to do with the motivation of Ukraine’s leadership. If leaders are not prepared to prioritize institutional reforms that will strengthen their militaries, then foreign support will be of little consequence. Ukraine’s experience is telling. Between 2014 and early 2022, Ukrainian officials were glad to receive U.S. help, and they followed U.S. advice in making changes that improved the effectiveness of Ukrainian forces. But they did not embrace institutional reforms that threatened the political or personal interests of powerful constituencies.
That changed in February 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion. The attack galvanized Ukraine’s leadership to discard parochial concerns and implement a series of reforms and battlefield innovations that help account for the country’s tremendous performance in the war. At the same time, the redoubled motivation of Ukrainian leaders has simplified the challenge of delivering the country security assistance. Ukrainian leaders no longer need to be persuaded by U.S. advisers. They are motivated enough to implement reforms on their own. What Ukraine needs now from the United States to beat back the Russian invasion is weapons and ammunition. This, the United States has delivered—to extraordinary battlefield effect.
CAN LEAD A HORSE TO WATER
In March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and launched an incursion into eastern Ukraine. In response, Western governments increased security assistance to Kyiv. The United States committed approximately $2 billion to military training and security sector reform between 2014 and 2022. Ukrainian leaders were motivated enough by Russia’s aggression to implement some U.S. recommendations, particularly in training, exercise, and arming units—areas where Kyiv had considerable room for improvement. But U.S. efforts to encourage reforms in Ukrainian defense institutions fell short because they rubbed up against the interests of the defense establishment.
For instance, U.S. military instructors trained the new Ukrainian Special Operation Forces in clandestine operations behind enemy lines, sabotage, and informational-psychological warfare. At the training center in Yavoriv, U.S. and other Western military instructors trained Ukrainian troops in combat tactics, battlefield medicine, and dismantling improvised explosive devices. With U.S. encouragement, Ukraine reformed its noncommissioned officers corps, improving methods of personnel management. Ukrainian leaders were receptive to these efforts because they boosted battlefield effectiveness without threatening existing institutional interests.
But when U.S. advisers recommended more costly security sector reforms, Ukrainian leaders made only cosmetic changes. Kyiv saw reforming the political institutions and processes in the security sector as burdensome and less pressing than progress at the tactical level. Ukrainian officials dawdled on implementing U.S.-proposed reforms to increase civilian control of the military, expand professional military education, and clean up the corrupt defense procurement system. For instance, despite the early successes in strengthening civilian oversight in the Ministry of Defense, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appointed a career military officer, General Andrii Taran, as defense minister, and Taran promptly squashed such initiatives.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Defense, led by Taran, and the Ministry of Strategic Industries dragged their feet in reforming procurement practices and failed to place orders for crucial weapons. For example, Ukrainian manufacturers make an excellent antitank weapon, the Stuhna-P, but the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense did not order enough of them in 2021. When Russia invaded in February 2022, Ukraine had to repurpose Stuhnas it had manufactured for Middle Eastern clients. Ukrainians fought Russians with Ukrainian weapons operating on Arabic interfaces. More proactive reforms in civilian control and defense procurement would have ensured Kyiv’s readiness for a larger war.
In February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine. Confronted with this immediate, existential threat, Kyiv focused on a single priority: maximizing the effectiveness of its forces fighting against Russia. Doing so required both reforming the defense institutions and increasing security cooperation with the West. Kyiv was desperate for Western ammunition and weapons, which the United States has delivered.
Weapons and training provided by the United States and other Western countries have been vital for translating Ukraine’s willingness to fight into battlefield success. The United States has provided much-needed antitank weapons, howitzers, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), antiship missiles, air-defense capabilities, and infantry fighting vehicles and tanks. Ukraine’s armed forces have quickly learned to use new weapon systems and have liberated thousands of Ukrainian civilians from Russian occupation in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson oblasts.
Donating money to Ukraine’s armed forces has become a daily routine for thousands of Ukrainians.
An existential threat from Russia did what U.S. encouragement alone could not––incentivized Kyiv to tackle corruption in defense procurement. In January 2023, Ukrainian media alleged that the Ministry of Defense was about to overpay suppliers for food for Ukrainian troops. The scandal resulted in hearings at the Ukrainian parliament, investigations, and the partial declassification of the defense procurement budget––a bold step toward transparency that is all the more striking in the midst of an ongoing war. In addition, the Ministry of Defense fired the head of the procurement department while the deputy minister of defense resigned voluntarily. In a separate case, the Security Service of Ukraine detained the president of a leading defense manufacturer for alleged corruption. Facing an existential threat, Ukrainian authorities and the public became increasingly intolerant of the endemic corruption that has plagued the country since its independence in 1991.
Ukraine has also implemented reforms that had nothing to do with U.S. security assistance. Since 2014, the Ukrainian government has developed a new legal basis and institutional capacity for mobilizing, training, and deploying its reserve corps—the result of hard work by Ukrainian civil society, government, and the military. Similarly, Ukrainian civil society has played a tremendous role in delivering the necessary equipment and services to the frontline. For instance, the Come Back Alive foundation, a nonprofit that aims to equip Ukrainian forces, improved Ukraine’s procurement process—and bypassed the Ministry of Defense’s bureaucracy—by crowdfunding the purchase of communication devices, laptops, generators, telescopic sights, and advanced drones for combat and reconnaissance. Hospitallers, a volunteer paramedic organization, has trained hundreds of paramedics to work on the frontlines and evacuated thousands of wounded combatants and civilians since 2014. Supporting Ukraine’s armed forces with donations has become a daily routine for thousands of Ukrainian citizens and businesses. Since February 2022, Come Back Alive has received almost $163.5 million, 80 percent of which has come from individual donations under $27. Although these achievements align with the goals of U.S. security assistance, they cannot be attributed to Western influence.
U.S. security assistance works best when the leaders of countries that receive such help are highly motivated to strengthen their militaries. The simmering war in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and early 2022 was not enough to compel the Ukrainian leadership to implement crucial changes in its security sector. It took the largest war on European soil since World War II to persuade Kyiv to embrace reform and maximize the value of U.S. assistance. Of course, Ukrainians are responsible for coming up with and pursuing many reforms and innovations since the 2022 invasion. But weapons and ammunition from Western countries were essential to Ukraine’s ability to sustain the fight against Russia. Ukraine’s success does not demonstrate that U.S. security assistance works writ large but, rather, that U.S. security assistance is most useful in the cases when those receiving the aid are driven to do whatever it takes to strengthen their forces.
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