Russia/Ukraine politics: Quick View - Ukrainian army still able to hold the line in the Donbas

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Country Data and Maps
Economist Intelligence Unit
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International Relations, Politics, News Analysis, Forecast
Political Geography
Russia, Ukraine


The Ukrainian armed forces are more disciplined and better trained than the Russian-backed militias they are fighting in the Donbas. The Ukrainian army therefore appears able to hold its positions in the Donbas in 2018.


Ukraine's 2015 military doctrine cites Russia as the main threat. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and insists that the region's status as a subject of the Russian Federation is non-negotiable. In the Donbas, Russia wages a proxy war against Ukraine (and Western countries) by providing military support to rebels.

The Ukrainian army is made up of conscripts and trained professionals serving under fixed-term contracts. These two groups have different combat abilities, as some conscripts appear to be poorly motivated. About 10,000 individuals were conscripted in the fourth quarter of 2017. Around 26,000 people joined the army under fixed-term contracts in the first nine months of 2017. Most of the contract personnel are non-commissioned officers and specialists, but among them are also conscripts who decided to re-enlist after having completed their conscription (12 months in the ground and air forces; 18 months in the naval forces).

By law, the Ukrainian armed forces can total a maximum of 250,000 active service personnel. By various estimates, up to 80,000 soldiers are currently deployed in the Donbas. On the ground, Ukrainian professional soldiers and officers appear to be highly motivated, battle-hardened, familiar with the theatre of operations and aware of their adversaries' tactics. In September the US military recommended providing Ukraine with lethal (anti-tank) weapons, which would prove useful for the Ukrainian military.

On the other side, and as the recent coup in Luhansk demonstrated, Russian-backed rebels appear to be poorly trained, undisciplined and divided around various factions competing to defend their own interests. According to Newsweek, a US newspaper, rebels held more than 700 tanks, 1,250 artillery systems and 1,000 armed personnel carriers in late 2016. However, and supposing this equipment is fit for use, the rebels' ability to fire weapons accurately remains unclear, as the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014 demonstrated. It therefore remains doubtful that rebel factions would be able to achieve military victories against the Ukrainian army without direct Russian military support.

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