From Amateur to Professional Army

When Sovereign Ukraine formed in 1991, the standing army was around 800,000 soldiers with thousands of armored tanks and vehicles. The country wielded 2,500 nuclear weapons with a powerful air force. In 1993, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from the U.K., U.S., and Russia. The security agreements and lack of nuclear weapons made other military spheres expendable. By 2014, the military was down to 130,000 members and only 800 tanks. In comparison, Russia’s military boasted close to a million active personnel.

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and supported Russian-backed separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk, Ukraine’s military was rooted in corruption. One insider reported that only 7,000 of the 130,000 soldiers were combat-ready. Russian-backed separatists easily overwhelmed the ill-prepared army and took large swaths of territory.

Ukrainian officials took note of the defeats and learned from their mistakes. A democratic and devolved non-commissioned officer system replaced the top-down authority where only generals made decisions. However, more importantly, Ukraine figured out how to maximize its potential and efficiency. Eight years of war taught them numerous tricks to outmaneuver the enemy. In 2014, the focus shifted toward teaching soldiers how to quickly dig trenches during Russian artillery attacks. The effort saved countless lives and became the underpinning principle for every aspect of their defense. This simple yet effective strategy showed the Ukrainians that they could be effective on the battlefield despite their technical shortcomings.  

Ukrainian soldiers are utilizing less well-known aspects of radar detection to pinpoint the enemy’s location to overcome deficits in other areas of their military. Once they have honed in on a target they use tablets to launch artillery strikes. Ukraine’s airplanes are outdated in comparison to Russia’s and analysts assumed Russia would dominate the air within days. Instead, shoulder-held stinger missiles and surface-to-air missiles have destroyed over 200 Russian aircraft. Russian pilots must now launch their missiles long distances from Russian territory or over the black sea. The spokesman for the Ukrainian air force said, “we have to use what we have with maximal effectiveness. There’s no alternative but to preserve our equipment and the lives of our pilots.”

Officials in Kyiv have also turned to simple but often overlooked strategies for collecting information. After Ukrainian citizens reported that Russian soldiers stole their cellphones, officials began to track and listen in on phone calls to collect strategic information. It is a simple yet effective tactic to outsmart the enemy.

Russia’s military is superior on paper in almost every aspect but has been dogged by ineffectiveness and logistical issues. Ukraine’s armed forces are outmatched, but a combination of reform and military “hacks” have propelled them to a status of professional excellence.


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