Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Ukraine’s Defense: A Whole-of-Society Effort Demanding Additional Support

| Oct. 13, 2023

Jake Steckler is a Veteran U.S. Army officer and graduate student at Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Sloan School of Management. He volunteers with Zero Line, which provides aid to Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline, and is a contributor to the Defense, Emerging Technology, and Strategy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The war in Ukraine has waged for almost 600 days, with intense fighting across a frontline that spans over 600 miles. Despite having far fewer resources than Russia, Ukraine has had surprising success in not only holding its ground, but also in launching a counteroffensive to recapture land taken in the initial invasion.

Much of the narrative revolving around the equipment used by Ukraine’s military centers on the massive aid packages provided by the U.S. and other Western nations. State security assistance, however, is only one piece of the complex supply chain that has fueled Ukraine’s war effort. 

I spent the summer in Ukraine, where I was able to meet with soldiers fighting on the frontline, work with NGOs supplying humanitarian and military aid, interview lawmakers, and assist a local factory. These myriad of actors showed me that distinct but overlapping efforts from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors are needed to keep Ukraine’s fight alive.

To date, material support to Ukraine’s fighters falls into three major components:

  1. Foreign state security assistance 
  2. Ukrainian public and private industry
  3. Consumer goods sourced by soldiers and civil society

While these three components have played essential roles in Ukraine’s success thus far, I’ve identified two steps public and private leaders can take to better fill existing gaps and optimize future contributions to the Ukrainian war effort: 

  1. Send cheap surplus supplies and equipment 
  2. Target investments in critical private Ukrainian industries 

Foreign State Security Assistance

To date, the U.S. has provided roughly $45 billion in military aid, and EU nations have contributed close to $27 billion. Much of the equipment provided in these aid packages is advanced weaponry: air defense systems, 155mm artillery howitzers, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Mine-Resistant Armored Personnel Carriers (MRAPs).

These systems are often used as strategic assets that are preciously protected and used in the most vulnerable areas, like the Patriot Air Defense systems used to defend the capital in Kyiv. Other forms of support are more expendable but equally essential, such as artillery guns and shells which provide critical standoff against Russian forces and counter the seemingly limitless Russian supply of artillery.

Once this aid is approved and earmarked by U.S. Congress or the equivalent allied governing body, it is funneled through what’s become the largest supply hub near the Polish-Ukraine border, a site in Rzeszow, Poland. From there, this equipment is moved via ground or rail into Ukraine — all air travel in and out of Ukraine is prohibited — and delivered to the units ready to employ it. 

Some vehicles and equipment, like Bradleys and High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) require weeks of training before soldiers are ready to put it to use. Other items, like small arms weapons, artillery shells, and body armor, are ready for immediate use.

This support, while highly impactful where it is employed, is not enough for two key reasons: (1) the vast front line requires extensive resources, and (2) the pace of the destruction of equipment requires rapid regeneration. Furthermore, equipment donated by foreign nations often requires modifications from Ukrainian local industry to become usable on the battlefield, such as lightly armored vehicles which were not originally designed for a war of this nature. Ukraine’s local industry thus fills the gap.

Ukrainian Industry

Two prongs of Ukraine’s defense industry are dedicated to covering the needs not met by foreign aid across the vast frontline: (1) state-owned weapons manufacturing and (2) private enterprise. 

State-owned Weapons Manufacturing

State weapons manufacturer Ukroboronprom consolidates all actors within the national public defense industry and leads Ukraine’s production of ammunition, vehicles, weapons, and hardware. While renewed efforts to bolster its efficiency have increased production volumes, Ukroboronprom is unable to single-handedly replace equipment at the rate of the war's expenditures and destruction.

Private Enterprises

Over 460 private manufacturers of vehicles, aircraft, weapons, ammunition, and communications equipment supplement Ukroboronprom’s production efforts. These private entities vary in size from large networks of factories to individual entrepreneurs constructing equipment in garage workshops. They both manufacture their own materiel and modify donated equipment not yet ready for the frontlines to get it as close to battle ready as possible, all as rapidly as they are capable of. 

Learning from Kyiv Engineering Corps

Kyiv Engineering Corps (KEC) is a local factory that before the war produced electronics for smart homes and today produces military telecommunications and electronics equipment. KEC is one of many factories throughout Ukraine that is directly plugged into both official and unofficial military channels, but is almost entirely funded by Ukrainian charity funds and staffed by underpaid volunteer workers. 

I volunteered with KEC and observed their primary line of effort, which is to receive lightly armored vehicles donated by foreign nations, reinforce their armor, gut their interiors, and transform them into mobile command centers. The factory is packed end to end with vehicles like Roshels (a Canadian armored personnel carrier initially designed for police forces) or various tracked vehicles from allies like the Czech Republic. KEC does far more than this, with various teams throughout the factory building and prototyping drones, manufacturing power banks for radios, and stitching together carrying cases for electronics equipment.

The director of the factory, Viktor Dolgopyatov, is plugged into both the frontlines and senior military staffers to ensure they meet battlefield demands. During my visits to the factory, Viktor was frequently engaged in meetings with members of Ukraine’s General Staff, which provides a steady list of the military’s most pressing high-level needs. He also regularly meets with frontline soldiers to better understand how KEC can meet their most emergent on-the-ground requests. 

Most recently, KEC has been asked by the General Staff to prototype a new armored vehicle similar to the U.S. MRAP, while frontline soldiers have pleaded for demining drones and anti-Russian drone electronic warfare (EW) weapons. The armored vehicle is to be funded by the Ministry of Defense, but the drones will have to come out of KEC’s pockets or from charitable donations. Soldiers arrive at the KEC facilities daily to receive drones, radios, and power banks, and they drive newly modified vehicles directly to the fight.

Volunteer Support and Soldier Self-Funding

Countless needs remain that are not met through either state sanctioned production or the relentless efforts of local industry leaders. Soldiers use whatever means they can — often turning to friends, family, and local charity groups and NGOs — to acquire critical equipment that either (1) cannot be purchased by the government due to lack of existing contracts or (2) is needed with an urgency that the government’s slow-moving, bureaucracy-laden supply processes simply can’t meet. A massive amount of equipment in use on the frontline is commercially sourced to fill these remaining gaps. 

A Ukrainian Parliament member, Maryan Zablotsky, emphasized to me the irreplaceable nature of this support. Commercial drones, and in particular DJI’s Mavik 3, are ubiquitous on the battlefield. Using these drones allows soldiers to remain in positions of cover while conducting an array of missions —  from reconnaissance and surveillance needed to defend their positions, to precisely targeted attacks on hard-to-reach trenches —  all without exposing themselves to enemy fire and landmines. China placed export controls on these drones in September, complicating Ukraine’s access to these critical capabilities.

Other commercially sourced items on the frontline include: civilian vehicles, critical communications equipment like Starlinks, power sources to generate heat and run electronics, basic office supplies like laptops and monitors, and optics for weapons and night vision.

Various nonprofits receive the requests from soldiers, source this equipment, and hand deliver it to soldiers in need. The largest such organization, the Prytula Foundation, has provided over 5,300 drones, 9,000 optics, 1,100 vehicles, 16,000 communications devices, and 50,000 pieces of tactical medicine. Others, like Spirit of America or Free Spirit, who I supported this summer, make their own significant impacts.

This aid is not confined to the frontline — it has also proved essential in the defense of major population centers. The commander of a mobile air defense unit protecting civilians and infrastructure in Kyiv told me that while he is equipped with Stinger missiles provided by the West, his team maneuvers using civilian-purchased pickup trucks and observes the night sky using night vision devices (NVDs) provided to his team by volunteers.

The consumer items sourced by civilians, NGOs, or soldiers get to the frontline by any means necessary. Nova Poshta, a private postal service, plays a significant role, sorting millions of parcels and cargo of aid from all over the world and delivering them across Ukraine. Other times, items are shipped to Poland, where volunteers load them onto trucks, lorries, and passenger vehicles, navigate the legal requirements to bring aid into the country, and take trips to and from the frontline. When all else fails, frontline fighters shuttle themselves to and from the battlefield to retrieve aid from all over the country. This spirit of resourcefulness plays an immeasurable role in Ukraine’s fight.


First, Ukraine's defense cannot succeed without continued assistance from its allied partners. As the U.S. Congress struggles to approve additional support for Ukraine, we must recognize the essential role that aid packages have played thus far and that Ukrainian lives and sovereignty rely on continuing such support. Before pursuing additional innovative solutions, we must ensure the continued resupply of the equipment providing critical warfighting capacity, like artillery shells, air defense munitions, and armored vehicles. 

Beyond the baseline needed to continue passing aid packages similar to those already supplied, there are additional steps public and private leaders can take to better fill existing gaps. Below are two recommendations to better fill these shortfalls and optimize future contributions to the Ukrainian war effort beyond the critical large aid packages.

From Surplus to Support

There are several under-the-radar warfighting needs Ukraine is struggling to fill. Many of these items are those that the U.S. and NATO nations have in abundance. 

The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services reutilizes, transfers, donates, and demilitarizes hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons, vehicles, and equipment every year. Much of what Ukrainian warfighters need is not state-of-the-art. Simple vehicles (either civilian or military), NVDs, and rifle sights could make lifesaving impacts in Ukraine. These items can be donated directly to Ukraine through official aid packages or sold at discounted rates for NGOs or the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense to purchase and ship to Ukraine.

  1. One of the bottlenecks to improved situational awareness across the battlefield is a lack of basic electronics —like laptops and monitors — to equip command posts and tactical operations centers. As a Troop Commander in the U.S. Army, I was responsible for shelves of unused laptops, monitors, and other electronics that were replaced by newer models and deemed unusable. This equipment, while simply a burden on the property books of military officers throughout the U.S., could be put to use in Ukraine. 
  2. Second, source and deliver four wheel drive vehicles. While critically survivable vehicles like Bradleys and MRAPs are playing a major role on the frontlines, there remains a widespread need for more expendable modes of transportation, particularly for the less well-equipped Territorial Defense Forces who constantly broadcast requests for pickup trucks and SUVs with 4-wheel drive. Across the U.S., there are thousands of used military and civilian vehicles available for a variety of reasons and public, private, and nonprofit leaders should source and deliver these vehicles to Ukraine.
  3. Third, send NVDs and weapons optics to improve Ukrainian battlefield awareness. Soldiers and volunteers are purchasing these items wherever they can find them. In one recent instance, a sniper team had no recourse but to purchase commercial hunting scopes prior to a critical mission.

The U.S. has these items in abundance, from Active Duty units to the Reserves, National Guard, and police forces. The U.S. should identify what surplus exists, move rapidly to expedite modernization efforts to replace older models, and send what’s on hand to the frontlines of Ukraine.

Strategic Infusions: Bolster Ukrainian Enterprises

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Ukraine’s economy and reconstruction. Much of this funding  has gone directly to Ukrainian small businesses to build resiliency in Ukraine’s private sector and promote a healthy post-war economy. While these investments are vital, we must make similar commitments to the innovators and industrial leaders making direct impacts on Ukraine’s successful defense, without whom there may not be a post-war economy to begin with.

  1. First, we should provide resources to sustain and improve the ongoing efforts of local factories, like KEC's armored vehicle modernization and small drone production. With greater funds to hire employees and purchase modern manufacturing equipment, Ukrainian factories could drastically increase their production. For example, a laser cutter would enable factories like KEC to more efficiently cut sheet metal and produce spare parts for armored vehicles and telecommunications sets. A computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine would hasten its production of engines and spare parts for observation and demining drones. KEC is hardly the only factory with such needs.
  2. Second, we must invest in innovators seeking solutions to unsolved problems that are growing increasingly urgent on the battlefield. Investing in the development and production of these emerging technologies will not only save Ukrainian lives, but through battlefield testing and iteration, improve NATO nations’ own security capabilities. Among the greatest demands from frontline soldiers are: 
    1. Handheld observation and First Person View (FPV) drones to reduce reliance on Chinese exports
    2. Distributed handheld EW weapons to counter Russian drones 
    3. Tools to counter Russia’s EW capabilities and keep Ukraine’s drones flying
    4. Air and ground-based demining drones that can map, identify, and clear the roughly 40% of Ukraine covered in landmines

To fund these efforts, we can look to existing programs designed to spur the private defense industry and advance U.S. and NATO’s  national security interests. Similar opportunities must exist to support defense manufacturing in Ukraine. Two potential avenues include:

  1. Public investment organizations and funds like the DoD’s Office of Strategic Capital (OSC), the Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), and the NATO Innovation Fund, which can themselves prioritize these immediate unmet needs, or serve as a model for investing in Ukraine’s defense. The OSC and Small Business Administration recently announced the rollout of the Small Business Investment Company Critical Technology (SBICCT) Initiative, “to increase private capital investment in critical technologies that strengthen our economic and national security.” Although SBICCT is focused on long term U.S. defense industry change, policy makers should discuss whether this program—or at least this model—can be applied to Ukraine.
  2. Encouragement and facilitation of private investment into Ukraine to meet the same goals. USAID has offered a list of recommended reforms to catalyze investment into Ukraine for post-war recovery; these same reforms can be applied to investments that can help end the war sooner.


While the Armed Forces of Ukraine have exceeded early expectations, the counteroffensive has been slower than expected and is suffering great equipment losses. The war may persist for years to come — a reconnaissance scout in the Territorial Defense Force named Vitaly, exasperated, expressed to me that he expects to still be fighting two years from now. Ukraine cannot continue to make the decisive push it needs to end Russia’s occupation without a whole-of-society effort. 

For Ukraine to maintain its defense and decisively thwart Russia’s invasion, it will take steadfast commitments from Western allies providing both state-of-the-art equipment and basic warfighting needs, local industry leaders and factory workers readying equipment for the frontlines and developing innovative technologies, and civilian volunteers tirelessly filling in the remaining gaps. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Steckler, Jake.“Ukraine’s Defense: A Whole-of-Society Effort Demanding Additional Support.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 13, 2023.