Ukraine is slowly but surely building its own arsenal of democracy.
As with any kind of massive governmental and industrial reform, Kyiv faces substantial obstacles.
Nonetheless, Ukraine has the basic building blocks of a productive, internationally competitive defense industry.
The Russian defense industry of the early 20th century was primitive relative to its European counterparts, but its development accelerated rapidly with the onset of World War I, and its Ukrainian components continued to increase in size and sophistication despite the disruptions of the Russian Civil War and World War II.
Many of the largest and most sophisticated warships built in both the Imperial and Soviet periods were constructed and fitted out at the great shipyards in Mykolaiv, along the Black Sea coast.
Ukraine’s relationship with the broader post-Soviet defense industry did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
After 1991 Ukrainian factories continued to supply components for the Russian defense industry, especially aviation and maritime technologies.
The 2014 war suspended this cooperation, causing significant problems for Russian industry as it restructured its supply chains.
From 2014 on, Ukraine’s own defense needs absorbed an increasing percentage of its defense production.
The Ukrainian defense industry cannot match the output of the Russian defense industry, but it doesn’t need to. Ukraine continues to derive support from the United States and Europe and can foresee at this point that such support will continue for at least the next 18 months or so.
At that point, electoral politics in the United States make it difficult to project how further assistance will develop. Still, even then it’s unlikely that Ukraine will be forced to go completely alone.
Ukraine has focused on its immediate needs such as ammunition, artillery tubes, and vehicles that can be produced in bulk and that will ease problems with uncertain supply chains from Europe.
Ukraine has also focused its attention on equipment that has been difficult to source from the West for either political or technical reasons, such as long-range strike missiles. For example, the development of the Trembita cruise missile offers hope for a non-bespoke long-range strike option into Russia itself.
The Soviet Union fell thirty years ago and – much like its Russian counterpart – the Ukrainian defense industry suffered in consequence. Infrastructure decayed, the linkages between firms deteriorated, and most importantly the defense workforce aged, retired, and died.
And the Ukrainian defense industrial base suffered some of the other problems associated with post-independence Ukraine. Extraordinary pressure – as one finds in war – is supposed to make it easier to cut through corruption and bureaucratic hurdles, but of course, it is often not the case.
The course of the war itself has also presented problems. The Donbas constituted one of the most industrial parts of Ukraine prior to 2014, and the loss of that industry necessarily impacts any effort to build a new defense industrial base.
State-owned arms companies have failed to fulfill contracts to supply war material, owing both to problems with resources and workforce, but also to bureaucratic lassitude. Accusations of corruption, common in Ukrainian government circles, have also pervaded the defense industry. The government has recently engaged in some house cleaning, including the refurbishment of the missile industry which came far slower than the government had expected.
In addition to direct equipment transfers, Ukraine has sought Western technological assistance for its defense industrial base. The question of technology transfer represents a touchy problem for Western militaries. On the one hand, the transfer of important defense technology and know-how to the Ukrainian defense industry would make Ukraine more capable of defending itself and more productive overall. On the other hand, the war is not over and technologies that Europe and the United States transfer to Ukraine could, in one way or another, fall into the hands of Russia.
On yet the third hand, European producers may worry that creating a robust, sophisticated Ukrainian defense industry simply means creating a long-term competitor in the arms export sector.
Again, the South Korean parallel is instructive; South Korea’s defense industry can more than meet its own needs and is now eating into the market share of traditional European producers. For its part, Ukraine has actively sought Western partners for technology development and has improved its intellectual property protection in anticipation of such partnerships.
What is Next for Ukraine?
Someday, Ukraine must (mostly) provide for its own defense. Whether as the eastern outpost of NATO or as an independent “porcupine,” Ukraine’s defense industrial base will need to provide the bulk of Ukrainian needs.
This will require restructuring and expansion of the existing industry, the acquisition of foreign technology, and the investment of sufficient capital to reinvigorate the manufacturing base.
Much of course depends on the continued depth and extent of support from the United States and Western Europe.
If that support wanes, then the demands upon Ukraine’s DIB will shift and increase.
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.