Lera Burlakova

March 9, 2023



The Ukrainian army has evolved from the wreckage of the Soviet military in the 1990s. But its reforms have often been driven by self-help activists rather than the high command.

No aerial reconnaissance. Bulky trucks instead of nippy off-roaders. Female gunners and snipers in combat, while officially described by the military as cooks and seamstresses. Such was the Ukrainian army in 2014.

The army of 2023 is very, very different. As the world has learned, it has evolved into a fearsome fighting force able to deliver painful blows to what Russian propagandists liked to call the second-best army on the planet. The Ukrainian Armed Forces’ performance is not a matter of equipment (though Western gear makes a big difference); it is a matter of morale, of fighting spirit, and of adaptability. And that last quality can often be traced to initiatives launched by private individuals.

Some reforms have begun in military headquarters, but an awful lot start with a little brave bus full of volunteers transporting something vital to the troops, delivering items that soldiers cannot get through official channels but which they badly need. Something that changes reality on the ground first, and the system when it catches up with what’s happening. It is no exaggeration to say that the roads of Ukraine are crowded with volunteer traffic taking everything from thermal imaging equipment and drones to socks and varenyky (dumplings).

Dmytro Krapyvenko, a former editor-in-chief, joined the army in February 2022, but it was not his first experience of the military. During the previous eight years of war, he had been a volunteer organizer, gathering donations, and then buying and delivering what soldiers needed.  “Everything from thermal and night vision gear, UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], and modern communication devices were delivered to our army exclusively as a result of volunteer help”, he recalls. Along with many others, Krapyvenko also purchased used cars. “Soviet vehicles — worn-out, huge, fuel-hungry — were a burden and a good target. Volunteers bought and improved pickup trucks. The bureaucracy resisted; those cars were not accepted as official military vehicles at first. But public pressure did its job”, he says.

Artillery software was provided by volunteers too. Tablets loaded with it were once a luxury, but have become ordinary. Soldiers on the frontline were unable to bathe and had to wait for rotation to the rear areas, but now: “volunteers made transportable baths. And later the army started purchasing baths based on military trucks. We have those now, and that is true happiness!” a smiling Krapyvenko told me.

It was the same story with drones. “It’s an important institutional change that we officially have air reconnaissance units now. Their work saves lives”, he adds. “Don’t know about the brigade, but in my battalion, all the drones are from volunteers”.

Invisible Battalion was launched in 2015 as a civil rights project for sex equality. It researched and documented women’s participation in the war since the outdated legislation of that time denied women the right to fight. Following a campaign of public pressure, publications, and war documentaries, the Ministry of Defense extended the number of military jobs available to women.

Maria Berlinska, one of the project coordinators, used to be a combat drone operator. Later she created a school to teach others and co-founded the Women’s Veteran Movement. In time, she moved to the US, but last year felt the need to return home. She was determined to prepare the army (her organization has trained 9,000 people, and 36,000 have registered for the course), and to provide it with good technology. And “to change the rules of the game”.

Before the full-scale invasion, Berlinska says, the annual state order for UAVs was very small. “Dozens, while we needed thousands”.

With escalation, she says, the Ukrainian government initiative Army of Drones managed to buy about 1,700 drones. The Dignitas Fund, a private initiative that Berlinska is involved in, was able to get about 3,500. And some “4,000-5,000 were purchased by Come Back Alive volunteer foundation, and so on,” she says. “But it’s never enough. In the last few days alone, we lost more than 500 drones. Electronic warfare countermeasures do work, but if a drone made just one successful flight, it was worth it!”

Berlinska describes the situation as “scary.” The Russians have much higher UAV production, as well as a direct supply of drones and spare parts from China. Ukraine has increased purchases, but the difference remains huge. Allies are giving hundreds of UAVs, but “thousands are needed”, she says. “Considering all types of aircraft, from Mavic drones to strike drones that travel hundreds of miles, we have less than 10% of our needs covered. What we do have is, to a great extent, thanks to volunteers”.

The volunteer movement is impressive but it still faces obstacles, many of them “made in Ukraine.” Those include wartime foreign currency limitations (so it’s hard to buy abroad). Or the complicated procedure for component imports. “We have to be like a vacuum cleaner, pulling in everything we can from the world. We are not producing enough ourselves”, she says.

Local manufacturers are “extremely motivated to create new products” but fight shy of engaging with the state. An example is the profit limit, whereby companies can’t offset research costs in their price. And yet, foreign companies can, so some Ukrainian firms are moving abroad. “Endless certificates, licenses that take months to get”, Berlinska says.

The frustration is obvious. Ukraine regained its independence three decades ago, but the bureaucracy’s muscle memory resists change. Activists seek a new state support program with small business and mentor support, industrial deregulation, and more. Most importantly, officials should not: “get in the way of doing what people are already doing. It seems that officials don’t understand how important this is. It can determine whether we win or not”.

Less immediate perhaps, but more painful is another “invisible battalion” of wounded soldiers. The social system can barely cope with an army of wounded veterans. As the numbers multiply, the imperfect old system isn’t coping.

Last year, Masi Nayyem suffered a serious head wound in combat. His subsequent journey through the military bureaucracy impressed him, but not in a good way.

A superb lawyer in civilian life, he decided to act and created an organization named Principle to protect military personnel’s rights. Nayyem and his fellow activists plan to revolutionize the process for injured soldiers, and in the meantime guide soldiers through the existing system.

Why is it so complicated? Human rights defender Lyubov Galan, co-founder of Principle, says the problem is with both the legislative framework and the system in practice. The health military system is not digitized, the approach is “quite Soviet”, the number of wounded is considerable and the ways of work ineffective.

Most striking is the legal requirement that service personnel submit all their paperwork in person and attend to hear their commander’s decisions.

Soldiers, Galan says, don’t always understand what to do. The system is poorly explained to the wounded, including processes so complicated “that they are sometimes hard to understand even for a qualified lawyer,” she says.

And so they work. With a clear understanding that despite the frustration, they can succeed in helping individuals in the short term and the system in the longer term. Because groups of motivated, caring people can climb mountains. As they always have. That’s the way it is in Ukraine.


Lera Burlakova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is a journalist and former soldier from Ukraine. She served in combat from 2014-2017 after joining the Ukrainian army following the Russian invasion of Crimea. Her war diary ‘Life P.S.’ received the UN Women in Arts award in 2021.