Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Operations in eastern Ukraine provide an ideal opportunity for Russia to measure the success of its military transformation - and assess how its forces might fare against modern Western armies.
Tanks of pro-Russian separatists ride towards the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on 22 January 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Tanks of pro-Russian separatists ride towards the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on 22 January 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

When Russia last went to war, in Georgia in 2008, it looked like an easy victory. But Russia's generals were deeply concerned at how badly their forces performed in some key areas of modern warfare. Since then, Russia has been intensively reorganizing, rearming, reequipping and retraining its forces in order to deal with those deficiencies, and to try and close the capability gap with modern Western armies. 

Now, with that work still in progress, Russia has a chance to try out some of its new systems and capabilities under combat conditions. While much of the Russian hardware deployed in Ukraine is not new, and some systems that are compare poorly with Western equivalents, they still represent significant developments in Russian capability.

Two key examples are the use of UAVs − drones − for surveillance and targeting, and the use of electronic warfare (EW). Both of these were identified as areas of weakness in the Russian forces in 2008, and both have been intensively developed since. Now they are in widespread use in eastern Ukraine; Ukrainian forces have not gone through the same intensive modernization process, and are at a strong disadvantage when they come up against newer equipment supplied by Russia. 

This is why the Ukrainian government has consistently been requesting supplies of not just weapons, but also ‘non-lethal’ assistance and equipment, in order better to resist Russian-supplied separatist forces. The public refusals by Western governments to provide this assistance work in Russia's favour: not only by keeping the Ukrainian government forces relatively weak, but also by signalling clearly where the West's limits lie and thereby simplifying President Vladimir Putin's risk assessments. 

Equipment gaps

Ukrainian forces are short of secure communications systems, with the result that their communications are routinely intercepted − or jammed thanks to Russia's strong advantage in EW equipment. Detection of their transmissions by Russian direction-finding equipment can also lead to being swiftly targeted by Russian artillery. 

As part of the non-lethal aid already provided by the US, Ukraine has received special radars to try to pinpoint the source of incoming mortar fire. But their effectiveness is limited by the difficulty in communicating the results to other Ukrainian forces. And for the time being, Ukraine has not received the more sophisticated systems that would pinpoint the source of fire from longer-range artillery systems.

Ukrainian forces are also outclassed by the tanks arriving from Russia. Not only are these more modern than Ukrainian models, but Ukraine is also short of effective anti-armour weapons in working order. 

All of these systems are on the list of Ukrainian requests for support to increase the survivability of their forces when confronting newer Russian military equipment. At the beginning of February, senior Ukrainian officials observed a demonstration of Hesco defensive barriers, which became a vital part of force protection for British and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, standing up to sustained fire from Russian-made light weapons.

Losses of Ukrainian aircraft over the conflict zone also show how well-equipped the Russian-backed separatists are for air defence. This includes not just the Buk missile system which shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, but also others like Strela for use at lower altitudes and shorter ranges, and a wide range of lighter shoulder-fired missiles. 

As part of its military transformation process, Russia has been practising for conflict with an intensive programme of exercises and manoeuvres involving hundreds of thousands of servicemen across the country. These exercises have been increasing in size and complexity, and often have a storyline which is directly hostile to the West. 

Now, in addition, Russia has the benefit of a live testing ground in eastern Ukraine where it can try out its new weapons, systems and tactics. The results − especially if all of these are tested against any potential new Western defensive systems supplied to Ukraine − will help Russia assess how its forces would fare in a direct confrontation with NATO. 

A version of this article was previously published by BBC News.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback