Against all Odds: Ukraine’s Defence Reform Process

by Svitlana Musiiaka · June 29th, 2022.

As the international community scopes how recent global events impact the future of security sector reform, Ukraine presents us with an example of how accountability reforms have contributed to a more effective, better managed and increasingly disciplined defence sector. Although never linear or constant, the defence reform process in Ukraine has transformed this sector towards increased accountability, transparency, and efficiency.


By 2014, inefficient governance policies deteriorated the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) resources, undermining the country’s defence capacities. The Russian aggression in 2014 in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea provided an unwanted stimulus to speed reforms in Ukraine’s defence and security sector. Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, which were embedded into the country’s Constitution, defined the general course of reforms. Governmental changes combined with international support and pressure from the civil society created a window of opportunity for a broad spectrum of the reforms.


Even though the context was not always conducive for change, Ukraine was able to achieve considerable progress in defence reform over the past 15 years, contributing to building resilience against the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022. Many achievements can be recalled as remarkable milestones of Ukraine’s defence sector reform, including adjusting command-and-control and defence planning systems to NATO requirements, renewing the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU)’s armament and material resources, and developing core elements of democratic civil oversight. It would be remiss not to also mention the remarkable strides towards improved gender equity, defence procurement processes, defence industry and classified information management.


Whilst there was still room for improvement, the trajectory of reform in Ukraine, shows the donor community that reform is possible even in contexts with high political stakes, potential security risks and regional power struggles. Donor investments in accountability reforms are effective and have proven to improve defence sector resilience and capability for people protection.


Legal frameworks development and modernisation is a foundational element of any reform in Ukraine. Laws provide the corner stone for any change in governance principle and practices. The four pillars upon which Ukraine’s defence sector reform process was based are briefly introduced below.


Civilian oversight. The Law “On national security” adopted by Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) in 2018 established a new framework for the whole defence and security sector regarding strategic planning, defence governance and oversight. Drafted with the support of international experts, the law was voted by 248 members of parliaments mainly from the pro-presidential party “BPP”, “Narodniy Front” and “Samopomich”. It defined the powers of the core decision-makers in the field, including the President, the Parliament, the Minister of Defence and the Commander-in-Chief. According to the law, not only do governmental agencies have the authority to perform oversight, but civil society also has the imprescriptible right to request information, conduct analysis and participate in public discussions. Transparency and oversight reform could benefit from stronger donor engagement in Ukraine. This area is challenging for internal and external oversight bodies, including the  Parliament and civil society organisations, which often do not have access to decisions, strategies and procurement orders.  Better integrating international coordination bodies with advisory capacity on defence reform, such as the G7 Ambassadors’ Support Group and the Defence Reform Advisory Board (DRAB), in the process of exploring management, oversight and transparency reforms, would ensure that reforms head towards deeper, structural and mindset changes. A first step could be a donor-supported needs analysis around the Committee for Defence, Security and Intelligence in terms of its ability to work effectively within the its parliamentary oversight powers.



Defence industry transformation. “Ukroboronprom” (UOP), a giant state defence industry conglomerate, combines more than 100 legal entities, most of which are unprofitable. For many years, it was characterised by outdated legal forms of state enterprises and nonefficient management practices that restricted opportunities for investment and international collaboration. The law “On special features of the state defence industry reform” (2021) defined a framework for the conglomerate transformation, including optimisation of the assets, sale of non-core or obsolete resources and implementation of corporate governance principles. The transformation process started in December 2021 but was interrupted by the full-scale escalation of Russia’s invasion. As a result, defining new statutes for member companies and choosing board members is not a priority now but should be one as soon as possible after the end of the war. The effective and accountable management of the defence industry is a difficult task in countries even with the most mature institutional legacy. In Ukraine, the transition and liberalization of the defence sector, including the management of UOP is a strategic-level challenge.



Defence procurement reform. The Law “On defence procurement” (2020) was adopted to provide open defence procurement procedures and increase transparency to minimise corruption risks in the defence sector. The level of civil society engagement in drafting this law was unprecedented for Ukraine. However, the process of the law implementation faced considerable delays and challenges. The law came into effect one year after it was supposed to due to the lack of coordination between responsible ministries and agencies. The first procurement plans in the defence and security sector were adopted only in the early beginning of 2022. Following Russia’s armed invasion, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to restrict access of the public to all defence procurement procedures. A lot of information was then excluded from the public domain for national security reasons. A return to open defence procurement will be necessary once the war is over in order to safeguard progress in this area and not derail the reform process.


Classified information. The need to change the mandate of the State Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the guiding principles of classifying information have been debated nationally over the last several years. The SBU as the authorized state agency for the protection of classified information has broad competences ranging from licensing and security vetting to exercising control over protection of classified information. This is combined with the SBU’s status of a specialized state agency with law-enforcement functions responsible for ensuring state security of Ukraine. Experts argue that the SBU should waive its extrinsic powers such as pre-trial investigation of economic crimes and should focus on fulfilling the traditional mandates of an intelligence agency.  Classified information is closely connected with the status of the SBU since this state agency has exclusive powers to establish classification regimes and control implementation of regulations. Several drafts of the law on state secrets and the SBU were developed, but intense debates still continue as those drafts do not provide the necessary shift towards transparency and accountability.


The war on Ukraine put the reform process on hold. To respond to threats, the martial law reduced transparency to avoid the unveiling of national security information and eased accountability constraints to facilitate procurement. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian community demonstrated its willingness to continue reforms for Euro-Atlantic integration even during the ongoing war. It is therefore crucial for international stakeholders to continue their engagement with Ukrainian counterparts. The reform process in Ukraine could present us with the opportunity to learn lessons and formulate future plans. As observed, defence reform progress tends to be non-linear and incremental as it navigates political stakes and interests. Yet, Ukraine’s defence sector reform is a success story of how accountability reform could transform a security sector. There is still much to learn from this experience and with the continued support of international partners, fostering the momentum for reform that existed in Ukraine before Russia’s invasion will be vital to preserve democratic practices and ensure that progress made is not lost.

Photo credit: Spoilt Exile 

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