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KYIV — With 120,000 Russian troops massed on their doorstep, Ukraine’s armed forces know they could soon face the ultimate test.
Those forces are a lot more prepared than they were for the last Russian attack in 2014, thanks to hard-earned combat experience, foreign weapons and military reforms.
However, a number of these reforms are incomplete, such as the transition from a post-Soviet centralized command to one that’s more flexible.
Russia insists it is not planning a fresh attack on Ukraine but such statements have done nothing to calm concerns in Kyiv.
Many shortages continue to plague the armed forces, which are only slowly being rectified by the planeloads of arms coming in from multiple countries in recent days.
The country is ill-prepared for a Russian missile barrage, has little airpower and while its damaged navy is on the mend, it has not yet fully recovered. A new territorial defense force, created late last year, isn’t ready either.
The government has also faced some criticism for not doing more to mobilize its reserves and strengthen the protection of critical infrastructure before an attack comes.
Taras Chmut, a Ukrainian former marine and head of military news site Ukraine Military Portal, said he disagrees with the government’s decision to carry on as normal, without significantly increasing Ukraine’s combat readiness. Mobilization might take months and Ukraine can ill afford to put it off, Chmut argued.
He added that arms procurement efforts had not been increased to make up for the country’s many shortages, such as a “catastrophic” lack of munitions, partly caused by Russia’s earlier destruction of stockpiles.
“The government is not doing anything,” Chmut said.
Glen Grant, a defense consultant in Ukraine and former lieutenant colonel in the U.K. army, stated that reserves haven’t been properly activated and the national guard is not training for war when every hour is crucial.
Senior officials in the country are like Nero fiddling whilst Rome burns,” Grant wrote on social media. “Better to prepare fully and then selectively stand people down if the attack does not come.”
Drones and boats
But not everyone agrees. Several analysts noted that Ukraine has been building up its forces, including with the procurement of attack boats from the U.S. and U.K., as well as attack drones from Turkey and new armored fighting vehicles.
They also questioned the wisdom of mobilizing everyone ahead of time, which could prove costly in terms of both money and morale if a long waiting game then ensues.
“The Russians can keep us that way for a long time,” said Alina Frolova, a former deputy defense minister who is now deputy chair of the think tank Center for Defense Strategies..
According to an analysis co-written by Frolova and former Defense Minister Andriy Zahorodnyuk, a full-scale invasion is unlikely to come in the next two to three weeks, if it comes at all.
Hybrid actions are more likely, such as cyberattacks (which have already targeted the country), bomb threats and other terror tactics, along with attempts to damage critical infrastructure, according to the analysis, first published by the Ukrayinska Pravda newspaper.
The analysts predicted that Ukrainian forces and resistance from ordinary citizens could do substantial damage to a Russian invasion force.
Frolova said Ukraine’s forces — more than 260,000 troops, plus the national guard, in addition to territorial defense personnel — are probably sufficient to absorb a first attack and buy time to mobilize reinforcements.
Territorial Defense, Ukraine’s newest military service branch, would be important to help protect the country or disrupt any Russian attempts at occupation but it’s just been born and can’t be counted on yet. The core is not there, Frolova said.
A survey by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future found that 56 percent of Ukrainians are ready to join the Territorial Defense force.
Command and control
Mykhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network, noted modern forces needed chains of command integrated with intelligence and defense systems, in order to make fast decisions. Ukraine has all the elements of such a system, he said, but faces a challenge in integrating them.
Frolova said Ukraine is still in the early stages of incorporating Western principles of command and control.
“The weak point is that the army is in a period of transformation,” she said.
“Command and control transformation has only begun,” she added. “This will count against us.”
The country’s equipment is a mixed bag, the most glaring gap being missile defense. Russia has been observed transporting Iskander ballistic missiles from bases in the country’s east, towards Ukraine.
The navy is in the early stages of recovery, making it harder to stand up to Russia’s power in the Black and Azov Seas.
On the ground, Ukrainian troops are better prepared and equipped with newer weapons. Tank-killing Javelin missiles from the U.S. and NLAW missiles from the U.K. should prove highly effective at piercing enemy armor.
“Everything will be decided on land,” said Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst with the National Institute of Strategic Studies.