Four years ago this week, Moscow launched its hybrid war against Ukraine and seized Crimea. Six weeks later, it began its not-so covert military operation in Donbas. One of the great, if unheralded stories of this war has been the largely successful effort of Ukraine to defend itself against this hybrid war in the east.
Ukraine has been on the front lines of a new generation of warfare where Russia blurs the lines between peace and war. Moscow’s aggression began with the seizure and then annexation of Crimea in February and March, and then the not so-covert war in Donbas in April.
While the Kremlin has claimed that this was an uprising of Donbas’ ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers against the government in Kyiv, the truth is that this has been a war led, financed and armed from Moscow. Thousands of regular Russian troops stopped Kyiv from retaking the entire Donbas in the late summer of 2014 and thousands of Russian troops remain in the occupied territories today. Moscow controls the military activity of the so-called separatist forces.
We have watched carefully the evolution of Ukraine’s armed forces since the war began and it is impressive.
We were in Kyiv in the first half of December at the invitation of the Victor Pinchuk Foundation for discussions with senior politicians, military representatives and representatives of civil society. We were impressed by their competence, dedication and energy.
Ukraine’s army has largely fought Kremlin forces to a stalemate. The old, static, Soviet-style army that Ukraine had in 2014 has been transformed into a capable fighting force. Part of that is due to the training provided by NATO members and especially the U.S. But most of this is due to the exigencies of wartime and Ukraine’s creative response.
Ukrainian officers have adapted well to battlefield developments and proved ingenious at countering Moscow’s clear advantages in tanks, artillery, cyber and electronic warfare.
For instance, reluctance on the part of Western countries and Israel to provide state-of-the-art drones prompted Ukrainian engineers to create their own, less complicated versions that have proved quite serviceable; and Ukraine’s own formidable cyber community has done a stalwart job shutting done Russian attacks on electricity grids and other infrastructure. Ukrainian hackers also got into the files of senior Putin-aide Vladislav Surkov and revealed embarrassing details about Kremlin operations in Ukraine.
In short, the Russian campaign in Ukraine is the face of future, hybrid war; and Ukraine has gained valuable experience that NATO and the U.S. are currently absorbing. This knowledge is critical for our own defense against an aggressive Kremlin.
Ukraine’s security depends on more than just a sound defense against Russian and separatist troops around the line of contact in Donbas. It also touches on the controversial questions of Ukraine’s relations with the West and the progress on internal reform. Under President Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine has decided that it would like to become a member of NATO; and in recent years a majority of Ukrainians have come to support this objective.
The reluctance of certain NATO members to consider this possibility, however, make this, at best, a long-term goal. Ukraine would be wise to take this into account and seek specific measures and cooperation with NATO and Western governments that would boost its security in the short term.
At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, NATO endorsed the decision to put well-armed battalions in each of the Baltic states and in Poland. In other words, it shored up its northeast flank. Its actions on the southeast flank, however, were not as robust. Ukraine’s interests would be served by a stronger NATO presence in that flank and in the Black Sea.
Ukraine could encourage such policies and, as a Black Sea state, discuss ways that it could facilitate a greater presence there. It should consider naval exercises and other forms of cooperation with Romania, a Black Sea state that recognizes the dangers posed by Moscow’s occupation and militarization of Crimea.
Ukraine also has substantial transport capacity, a capacity greater than nearly all NATO members. Kyiv would be wise to consider how, once its own war-related needs are met, it could put this capacity at the service of NATO. Ukraine correctly claims that the West should be providing more support as it battles Moscow’s aggression. At the same time, Kyiv should search for additional ways to demonstrate how it can be helpful to the West.
Reform is the other great issue drawing attention in Ukraine, and it too has a security dimension. The two directly overlap in Ukraine’s defense industries. Ukroboronprom, the huge state conglomerate that oversees defense production, is, despite a makeover or two, still a vestige of the Soviet era that gets in the way of fast and efficient decisions in the defense sector. The abolition or substantial overhaul of this company would free up the entrepreneurial instincts in defense industries, encourage foreign investment and lead to the better supply of Ukrainian forces.
The great questions of reform also bear on Ukraine’s security. The courageous decision by Ukraine’s leaders to move to market pricing for natural gas ended the country’s dependence on Gasprom and knocked out most of the government’s budget deficit.
Ukraine’s fight against Kremlin aggression and the old corrupt order is one fight. Strong anti-corruption measures would not only improve life in Ukraine, but strengthen Ukrainian society against Kremlin blandishments, subversion and worse. Such measures would also make Ukraine a more attractive partner for NATO and the EU.
Ukraine certainly deserves more Western support — evident in the Trump administration’s wise decision on defensive weapons supply — and the Ukrainian people deserve less corrupt governance. These outcomes will be more quickly achieved together.
• Wesley Clark is a retired U.S. Army general, former NATO supreme allied commander and a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center. Jack Keane, a retired U.S. Army general, is a former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army and chairman of the Institute for the Study of War.