Caitlin Doornbos

March 3, 2024

Smart News


Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine – One truism repeatedly echoes across the battlefields of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine: “A small Soviet army cannot beat a large Soviet army.”

However, Kyiv’s fighters told The Post this week, a small NATO-trained army equipped with modern Western weapons most assuredly can beat a large Soviet army – and is.

Ukraine is surviving – and often thriving – in a war that much of the world did not expect them to stay in for two weeks, let alone two years. Military officials attribute much of their success so far to the superior technology and NATO-standard training that international partners have provided.

Even though their numbers are smaller, Kyiv fighters are proving that NATO-training and modern Western weapons could be the key to victory.

“The arithmetic of war is clear: either numerical superiority or technological dominance is required to achieve defined objectives on the battlefield,” Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine Ivan Havryliuk exclusively told The Post. “It is important to talk about increasing the capabilities of the Defense Forces of Ukraine.”

Russia has numerical superiority in spades, with more than 1.32 million active duty members of its armed forces. (Ukraine is believed to have around 900,000.)

But despite that disadvantage, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week revealed that about 31,000 Ukrainian forces have died in combat since Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24, 2022 – while Russian troop death totals are closer to 180,000.

“31,000 Ukrainian military personnel have been killed in this war. Not 300,000, not 150,000, not whatever Putin and his deceitful circle have been lying about. But nevertheless, each of these losses is a great sacrifice for us,” Zelensky said at the “Ukraine. Year 2024” forum in Kyiv on Feb. 25.

Officials here affirmed to The Post that Russian forces have been dying at a rate of roughly six to one compared to Ukraine’s troops. The number of wounded is likely just as high, as a US intelligence report declassified in December estimated that roughly 315,000 Russian troops – or roughly 87% of the number that originally invaded the country in 2022 – had been killed or injured.

Dignity and Depravity

While the Kremlin throws hundreds of thousands of their citizens into Ukraine to use as little more than cannon fodder, Kyiv values the dignity of its defenders, its soldiers told The Post.

The result is that while thousands of Ukrainians volunteer to defend their country, Russia is turning to hardened criminals to compensate for a lack of trained troops.

One commander of a fire-support unit in Donbas told The Post on Tuesday that he has seen Russian forces stack their dead – and even the living-but-wounded – to be used as protective barriers during trench warfare in some of the most brutal battles of this war.

“It’s medieval, the way they treat their soldiers,” said the commander, who was granted anonymity to avoid potential reprisals.

But treatment of forces is not just about respecting human rights and the laws of war – caring for troops makes a big difference in combat efficiency, which the US and its allies know well.

Senior American defense officials have spoken frequently of the advantage Ukrainians have on the battlefield in fighting spirit alone.

“We must continue this fight,” one Ukrainian soldier in Donetsk Oblast, which has been partially occupied by Russia since 2014, told The Post. “This is our democracy. This is our freedom. What choice do we have?”

Troop morale is critical for victory on the battlefield.

What’s more, Ukraine simply does not have the spare warfighters to lose. Each soldier’s life is critical to the battle against an enemy whose territory spans two continents.

Knowing this, troops who spoke to The Post were glowing with excitement about some of the modern weapons – such as the heavily armored Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, M109 “Paladin” howitzers and Bradley fighting vehicles – provided by the US and other Western partners.

At his unit’s frontline position, a Ukrainian Armed Forces commander – who was granted anonymity for the safety of his family – explained how MRAPs are specifically designed to plow through minefields and withstand blasts to safely move troops into forward positions.

“My troops feel confident inside this,” he said of a MAXXPro MRAP in his unit. “They provide fire support and are good for evacuations.”

The same goes for Western howitzers, such as the M109 Paladin. Boryslav, the captain of one unit fighting in the Donbas region with M109s said that unlike the Russian equivalent, “these machines were developed to save human lives” – not just to end those of the enemy.

The American-made armored howitzers are designed to precisely fire artillery while keeping the troops inside safe. While the M109 seats about seven people, Boryslav said he has fit twice as many troops inside the armored cab during recent evacuation missions.

“We are saving our lives and also we’re saving lives with fire support to our neighbors’ units,” he said.

Another soldier in Boryslav’s unit exclusively shared a video with The Post of a recent firefight during which an M109 was struck by Russian artillery, but was able to safely drive away.

The M109 Howitzer is capable of withstanding Russian artillery.

Western weapons also offer better accuracy and precision strike capabilities, which is especially critical now as Ukraine faces a dwindling supply of munitions after more than two months without a US military aid shipment.

“Russians have more troopers and more machines, but we need to have the better ones,” Boryslav said. “This kind of vehicle destroys quickly and very accurately enemies and vehicles like tanks, so we don’t spend a lot of hours on this mission.”

The captain estimated that NATO-standard weapons can do the same damage as 10 rounds of Moscow’s Soviet-era artillery in about three shots.

Moscow’s soviet era weaponry is no match for what the West is providing.

The benefits of the western quality of equipment extends to the medical sphere, said Steve Donnelly, an American who has been training frontline medics since the war’s early days.

When Donnelly first arrived with a volunteer group in May of 2022, he was surprised by the Soviet-era medical kits Ukrainian forces had been using on wounded soldiers. Their tourniquets, for example, were “basically just thick rubber bands,” which could lead to otherwise preventable amputations.

Another American volunteer, Navy veteran Chet Lyon, told The Post that when he joined the foreign legion to fight with Ukraine, he was shocked to learn his new brothers-in-arms did not even have enough of the basics – such as night vision devices used to target enemies when the shelling intensifies after sunset.

Putin’s worst nightmare

Ukraine’s growing ties to the West throughout the war is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmare. Just over two years ago, he listed Kyiv’s ambitions to join the powerful transatlantic military alliance among his reasons for invading the whole of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

The dictator had ordered Ukraine to remove its NATO ambitions from its constitution, but Kyiv refused. Putin then demanded NATO pledge it would never allow the country to join its ranks – but that would have violated the alliance’s founding documents, which declare that every country has the right to apply for membership if it can meet certain standards.

Since the invasion, the alliance has grown by two with the addition of Finland and Sweden — bringing NATO right to Russia’s front door.

What’s more, Ukraine’s military is ever closer to operating under NATO standards, the protocol for warfighting that each member state’s military must use to be the most effective, especially when working together.

“NATO [has] provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a statement Wednesday, asking allies to “combine and strengthen our experience.”

“We proved it possible to withstand and overcome even an enemy that seemed one of the strongest in the world,” Zelensky said “Every nation can succeed in defense when other nations cooperate and people are motivated to be resilient.”

“Everything that makes us good partners also makes Putin weaker. That is why he invests so much in divisions and crises – he knows exactly what serves his interests,” he added

However, Ukraine’s continued modernization and Western alignment is imperiled with each day the House of Representatives delays voting on a supplemental funding bill that would provide roughly $60 billion for Ukraine.

In the absence of military aid for Kyiv, the modernized Ukrainian military’s advantage has begun to degrade, as seen in its recent withdrawal from Avdiivka.

“Russia is many times superior to Ukraine in terms of economic and human resources, the power of the defense industry, and the volume of arms production,” Havryliuk warned.” The Kremlin’s military spending is setting new records.