Ukraine’s army must shed its Soviet legacy

A culture war is brewing within Ukraine’s armed forces. It is being waged between top-down Soviet military thinking on the one hand, and bottom-up Western military culture on the other. This intellectual tussle is hindering Ukraine’s adaptation and learning. It is also hurting Ukraine’s performance in the war against Russia. This is one of my main lessons from a recent research trip to Kyiv and the frontlines of eastern Ukraine, which I conducted alongside some of the leading Western military experts on Russia.

This culture war is largely about leadership. Some army officers have embraced the Western philosophy of “mission command,” which grants commanders on the spot, regardless of rank, the freedom to execute their missions according to their own best judgment. This approach emphasises bottom-up initiative to exploit opportunities on the battlefield. But a large number of Ukrainian officers, including far too many in the most senior ranks, curtail such initiative in favour of rigid operational orders often issued by headquarters far from the frontline.

Many Western observers of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine have been partially blind to these internal tensions in Ukraine’s army. This is in part because of Ukrainians’ ingenuity in adapting commercial and advanced military technologies to help fight off Russia’s invasion over the past 13 months. Most of these adaptations have come from the bottom up. One example is the integration of indigenously developed battle-management systems, such as Kropyva, with Starlink satellite internet and commercial drones to help Ukrainian artillery crews identify targets. This has enabled a rudimentary form of combined-arms warfare: in which different combat branches, like infantry, artillery and air power, support one another.

This narrative of technology and innovation feeds into a larger story that Westerners tell themselves about the Ukrainian army’s supposed transformation from a rigid, hierarchical Soviet-legacy force to an adaptable and effective NATO-style military. Ukraine cultivates this narrative with information operations, such as carefully-edited videos made for social media that show improvised platforms, such as quadcopters carrying grenades, destroying Russian tanks.

The truth is that part of Ukraine’s armed forces, in particular the ground forces, risk backsliding to their old and inflexible ways. One reason is the large number of casualties incurred among NATO-trained Ukrainian soldiers in the first months of the war, and the consequent mobilisation of a large number of retired Ukrainian officers steeped in rigid Soviet military thinking. But that is only part of the explanation. In fact, Soviet influences have always been more prevalent than many observers have realised. As one officer of a mechanised brigade told me: “It’s not enough to pass some NATO course to change someone’s mentality who spent years in the Soviet-like system.”

It is tempting to say that this is merely an issue between younger and more senior officers, and thus different levels of command. In fact, old-style thinking appears to permeate all ranks. Many Ukrainian officers still have a natural tendency for “stovepiping”, or adhering to a rigid command structure that hinders communication and co-operation with others in the armed forces. Most Ukrainian operations are therefore still sequential rather than joint. That is, they follow a rigid timetable in which isolated actions—an artillery barrage here, an infantry assault there—take place one after the other, rather than simultaneously, as recommended by modern combined-arms tactics.

Look at Ukraine’s continued reliance on mass artillery fire. Despite Ukraine’s serious shortage of shells, my field research suggests that the country has not substantially decreased its artillery consumption in months. If junior officers had the authority to exploit opportunities as they arose, mounting co-ordinated attacks from infantry and armoured vehicles, supported by short but pinpoint barrages of precision-guided artillery, this would drastically reduce the number of shells needed.

The ongoing culture war in the Ukrainian armed forces makes it harder to distribute new technology evenly across the force. “The problem is not the technology, it is the culture,” I was told by one official from Aerorozvidka, an NGO founded by volunteer experts that has co-developed battle-management software and nimble R18 drones for the Ukrainian armed forces. Individual units use a range of different apps to conduct their operations. This hampers co-ordination between units, and reinforces the old Soviet habit of distinct orders flowing separately to different units. “This is essentially two Soviet militaries fighting one another”, lamented the official.

Ironically, some technology has even reinforced Soviet culture. For example, networked battle-management systems, which provide a real-time picture of the battlefield and allow messages to flow back and forth, allow higher-ranking commanders to micromanage battles from afar, despite often-limited knowledge of the local terrain and circumstances of the unit. The result is often greater inflexibility—it is hard to improvise when a general is breathing down your neck—and higher losses of men and materiel. It can also result in tensions. Some junior officers steeped in the Western tradition have started to ignore orders from above. That is dangerous in military organisations, which rely on the prompt and faithful execution of lawful orders.

The ongoing culture war is making Ukraine’s transformation into a 21st-century fighting force an uphill battle. The West could help by stepping up its training efforts, even for Ukraine’s most senior officials. But for this to make a difference, Ukraine’s armed forces will first have to cast aside their Soviet cultural inheritance, delegate authority to lower ranks, and give junior officers permission to use their initiative without facing punishment. Technology should be used to empower units, not micromanage them, and successful experiments, such as those with drones, need to be scaled up across the force. Such a transformation could help reduce Ukraine’s casualties in this ongoing war of attrition.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a military strategist based in Vienna.

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