Small Wars Journal

NATO’s Defence and Security Sector Reform Challenges in Ukraine

Wed, 08/31/2022 - 5:16pm

NATO’s Defence and Security Sector Reform Challenges in Ukraine


By Eden Cole




At the end of 2021, NATO prepared the ground for an intensification of defence and security sector reform (SSR) assistance to Ukraine. With the then-NATO Liaison Officer outgoing, the NATO Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine (CAP) Team Leader visited the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine (NSDC) to discuss strategic security policy, the status of defence and security sector reform (SSR), and the revitalisation of the NATO-Ukraine Joint Working Group on Defence Reform (JWGDR).[1] The Team Leader’s emphasis on the importance of resuming high-level NATO-Ukraine consultations within the JWGDR format reflected an urgent need for broader multi-stakeholder consultation on SSR programming and greater coordination of bilateral SSR assistance programmes.


Despite the onset of war only four months later, the security policy challenges the CAP Team’s Individual Tailored Partnership Programme for Ukraine (ITPP) set out to solve remain. The effectiveness of ITPP remains dependent on increased cooperation with international and bilateral actors active on security policy issues in Ukraine since 2014. NATO had already increased cooperation with the European Union Advisory Mission Ukraine (EUAM) and the Delegation of the European Union to Ukraine (EU Delegation) on SSR issues, but bilateral nations continued to work directly with Ukrainian stakeholders.


In its original format, the JWGDR incorporated other international actors working on SSR and governance issues. Re-establishing a fully multi-institutional and multi-stakeholder format to cover the full spectrum of security sector oversight challenges can potentially remove obstacles that have limited SSR progress since 2014.


Ukraine’s SSR Challenges


As 2021 closed, Ukraine continued to grapple with security policy and oversight challenges. Amendments to the Laws on National Security, State Security Service, Procurement, and on the ‘corporatisation’ of Ukroboronprom monopolised much of the security policy agenda. An entrenched approach to over-classification stymied discussions on defence and security policy, both in general terms and on specifics such as procurement. Pushback in parliamentary hearings against civil society experts was indicative of tensions between well-established vested interests and reformers.


Persistent defence oversight and management problems left the Ministry of Defence (MoD) unreformed, with departments operating in silos, and personnel appointed due to personal and political connections rather than skills and experience. Until the appointment of Defence Minister Reznikov in November 2021, some predecessors had stopped attending parliamentary hearings when requested. When reformers were replaced in the ministry, their successors simply recycled standard reform presentation[2]. Additionally, the non-executive advisory ‘MoD Reforms Office’, which had incubated a variety of reform initiatives, was closed in 2020.


These developments were part of a broader pattern: the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA)[3] faced questions over its reform commitments beyond citizen-facing service provision; and controversies dogged the anti-corruption units of the State Security Service (SBU) following the incomplete reforms of 2017-18[4].


This inertia was an outcome of inefficient policy- and legislative-development cycles at the national level. The new Law on National Security was adopted under President Poroshenko, but vested interests secured compromises in a high-pressure legislative environment in which implementation of the EU Association Agreement dominated parliamentary business. By the time the first hearings on the Law on National Security took place, momentum had been lost, and positions consolidated amid resistance from security institutions.


International advisory support could be fragmentary, reliant on individual nations or organisations taking the initiative to facilitate limited consultations on key reform challenges. NATO publicly signalled a need for legislative course-correction[5], but doing so reflected an inability to pre-empt problems and forge consensus on oversight priorities.


Under President Zelenskyy, overdue updates to legislation had to be addressed again, but only after the development of the National Security Strategy and the subsequent Strategic Defence Bulletin. The protracted delays to their development, along with the failure to finalise the security strategy within the constitutional time limit [6], alongside the need to further amend national security legislation, all adversely affected the pace of defence reforms.


General frustration with progress on oversight issues still left internationals, including the NATO Representation in Ukraine (NRU), stuck in the middle of inter-factional policy disputes. The NRU continued to facilitate Professional Development Programming (PDP) for civil service professionals in lockstep with allied nations. But the NRU only addressed oversight issues in a reactive manner, on request, seeking external expertise to cover the basics of SSR best practice already outlined a decade earlier. Opportunities for difficult conversations about policy challenges and their potential remedies were forgone.


On the Ukrainian side, a key challenge was identifying which international representatives to approach on security policy issues. Before February 2022, different institutions would selectively approach US Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDAs), the Canadian PROTECT programme, or others bilateral partners to seek policy guidance in specific instances. Whilst some US MoDAs had diplomatic status and accreditation to MoD and Cabinet of Ministers, other advisors – such as the UK Defence Advisor – did not have the same status, introducing a practical obstacle the MoD itself.


Bilateral Security Governance Programming


From 2017, nations sought to fill gaps in defence management and security policy programming through their own initiatives. Although some areas of reform – such as police reform – benefited from a surfeit of competing cooperation opportunities via the EU Assistance Mission (EUAM), the USA, and Canada, assistance in other security programming areas were more limited.


On the European side, in tandem with providing training and technical assistance for key military units, strategic advocacy by Poland and Lithuania was instrumental in gradually shifting support on defence assistance closer to Ukraine’s expectations. Their sustained advocacy to add a defence dimension to EU programming was sufficient to create a Military Advisor post in the Delegation by 2021, as well as preparing the ground for the first European Peace Facility (EPF) tranche of EUR 31m for non-lethal assistance, which was authorised in December 2021[7]. These developments were already significant and, after the invasion, particularly fortuitous as the groundwork for enhanced military-technical assistance had already been laid.


On the North American side, Canada’s assistance addressed gaps in strategic policy advisory that were evident by 2017. By 2020, the Promoting Reform Objectives through Technical Expertise and Capacity Transfer (PROTECT)[8] project had the specific objective of improving the governance, accountability, and democratic oversight of Ukraine’s security sector. The Parliamentary Assistance Project (PASS) focused on security governance challenges with democratic institutions[9]. PROTECT also conducted a benchmarking exercise for the MoD, collating data on a range of best international practices on defence management issues, which could serve as a template for MoD’s internal reform. The Canada-initiated and UK-supported Kyiv Mohlya Business School (KMBS) Strategic Leadership Programme in the Security and Defence Sector of Ukraine also created a platform to train institutional leaders on SSR best practice. The value of the course was acknowledged by both President Zelensky and the Head of NSDC at the first graduation ceremony[10].


Invited to join Defence Reform Advisory Board (DRAB) in 2016, Canada used the platform to address strategic defence reform challenges. Although formally limited to advising the Minister of Defence of Ukraine and Chief of the Armed Forces[11], DRAB filled an advisory and advocacy gap. Following its expansion to include Germany and Poland, Canada was instrumental in using DRAB to approach the North Atlantic Council to secure Enhanced Opportunities Partner (EOP) status for Ukraine, with the status granted in June 2020. 


In this way, Canada, Lithuania, and Poland drove Euro-Atlantic political and SSR cooperation agendas, intensifying strategic cooperation while supplying remedying some gaps in international programming. But the successes achieved in individual and cooperative formats were achieved in the absence of a single SSR package designed to solve an ever-protracted reform process[12].


EU Security Policy Engagement


The EU’s previously limited role in security policy and reform inevitably grew after Euro-Maidan. With the establishment of EUAM, the EU engaged with the reform of the ‘civilian’ security sector beyond defence. In parallel, the Delegation retained a focus on defence security sector reform and governance issues, with a dedicated focal point for SSR who actively monitors key security policy developments. Consequently, the annual EU Association Agreement Implementation Reports have precisely noted the ebb and flow of security sector reform progress[13]. With the establishment of the European Peace Facility (EPF) in2021, the Delegation also opened a new defence cooperation dimension, adding a Military Advisor at the Delegation to prepare for EPF’s activation and to develop a sharper focus on the logistical and equipment issues, which were already identified as cooperation priorities.


From 2017, the development of strategic security planning documents and related policies and legislation was a key focus for both the Delegation and EUAM, and strategic coordination with NATO increased as both faced the same challenges aligning programming with Euro-Atlantic standards. Formal and informal coordination enabled closer cooperation on planning and monitoring tasks. EUAM and NATO coordinated on strategic security policy issues, with the EU contributing to the development of the annual NATO Planning and Review Process (PARP), as well Partnership Goals. In 2021, nineteen of these goals went beyond defence to address security governance and oversight issues across broader law enforcement, border management, state security services, and veterans’ affairs areas[14].


However, of the forty-two Partnership Goals addressed to Ukraine in 2018, it was notable that: ‘although progress has been made in many areas, Ukraine did not fully complete the implementation of any Partnership Goals during the period 2018-2020’[15]. As this suggests, identifying a strategic cooperation framework to achieve successful SSR outcomes was already urgent before February 2022.


The JWGDR Framework: 2004 - 2009  


During its most intensive programming phase after the Orange Revolution, the JWGDR innovated a multi-institutional approach on defence and security sector policy and legislative matters, bringing together Ukrainian parliamentarians, security sector agencies, government ministries, and civil society representatives. Beyond the defence sphere, the JWGDR also diversified into intelligence oversight issues, focusing on reform of the SBU, and also addressed law enforcement and border management issues. In essence, JWGDR was an outcome of lessons learned during NATO’s original expansion phase and avoided an over-emphasis on defence oversight by retaining a focus on broader security sector oversight needs.


The JWGDR’s inclusive approach was complemented by good public communication, enabling a space for intensive discussion of challenges and solutions beyond more formal meetings and workshops. Cooperation with NSDC and the National Institute of Strategic Studies (NISS – formerly NIISP) as a framework institution allowed for effective steering and troubleshooting. In close coordination with the Verkhovna Rada’s Defence and Security Committee, parliamentarians from across the political spectrum also participated in discussions, workshops, and formal conferences convened under JWGDR auspices. The format allowed for more easily establishing a public consensus on security sector reform priorities, from initial work on financial transparency issues and oversight of appointments through to more detailed oversight legislation. Other initiatives, on Defence Institution Building (PAP-DIB) and nascent programming on Building Integrity, were spun out of the JWGDR format and implemented through peer-to-peer cooperation.


Although the JWGDR could have served again as a template for regional organisations seeking to initiate high- and mid- level multi-stakeholder security governance cooperation formats after 2014, the opportunity was not taken up. However, a general lack of documentation and lessons learned from earlier programmes led to the repetition of baseline reform activities by other assistance actors, sometimes nearly a decade later. For example, in the intelligence sphere, a focus on developing a code of ethics, white books, and integrity training for SBU up to 2018 repeated elements of prior JWGDR programming between 2006-2009[16].


Re-Animating Security Governance Programming


Today, the prospect of reanimating the JWGDR remains undiminished by the onset of full-scale hostilities: rather, the opportunities the format offers need to be understood and adapted to the new reality.


The time for adaption is short. Although the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) for Ukraine adopted at the NATO Madrid Summit in June 2022 is not yet publicly available, briefings on the framework and priorities began in late July for a range of NATO staff and partners. In early July, the Lugano Ukraine Recovery Conference also confirmed the Lugano Principles[17] and EU Recovery Plan as the framework for future multilateral programming in Ukraine. Identifying an optimal framework for situating CAP and ITPP within the Principles and Recovery Plan will expedite the set-up and coordination of policy assistance initiatives. In parallel, Ukrainian stakeholders need to identify their most crucial SSR challenges and develop structured approaches to solve them.


Addressing the immediate challenges of an enlarged security sector will loom over other considerations. Fundamental reform of the MoD, MoIA, and SBU; resource management and procurement practices; policy development by civilians in lockstep with democratic and security institutions; and a comprehensive revision of obsolete legislation will again be high priorities. Using the good offices of the NSDC as a lead cooperation agency could again expedite SSR programming.


As the foundation for security sector oversight is already established, future SSR programmes can focus on higher-order problems. Democratic institutions and their staffs are already familiar with baseline concepts and best practice. Government ministries have also benefited from extensive professional development trainings to orient new staff, and NGOs have sustained an active monitoring and advocacy role on best practice. Instead, the international community’s main challenge is to go beyond mundane SSR guidance and help stakeholders decisively address more complex – and inevitably politically sensitive – institutional reform challenges.


NATO partners also have a role to play. As Enhanced Opportunities Partners, Sweden and Finland have substantial experience on security governance best practice and are already adept at addressing those issues in an EU context. Other NATO partners like Switzerland have previously contributed substantial policy and governance expertise in the JWGDR framework. As Switzerland continues to populate NATO HQ with secondees, an opportunity to re-engage with Ukraine via the JWGDR could quickly re-establish prior security policy and oversight cooperation initiatives.  


Finally, effective cooperation always remains dependent on trust and understanding. Ukrainian institutions need clarity on what NATO is now offering after the Madrid Summit, and the NATO’s commitment to implement the projects in-country. Demand for institutional cooperation is likely to be higher than ever before, but this is a legacy of the fragmented reform approaches of 2015-2020 rather than the current conflict itself.




Ultimately, the lack of a multi-institution cooperation framework after 2014 slowed discussions of key security sector reforms, particularly in terms of developing strategic security policy, legislation, and resource management. Instead, limited advisory was supplied via bilateral initiatives and individual organisations, resulting in a lack of momentum and coordination. Although some NGOs gained capacity to drive more intensive scrutiny of policy and legislation, a lack of multilateral support minimised their impact.


Navigating Ukraine’s domestic politics – both before and after the current war ends – will require patience, creativity, and commitment, as well as intensive cooperation with reformers across parliament, government, civil society, and the security sector. The smooth passage of key policies and legislation cannot be taken for granted, and the need to address persistent reform obstacles will remain urgent. Reformers in parliament, government, and society will need to find a way around the political tensions and fractures across the political landscape.


In this high-pressure environment, with its inclusive format, the JWGDR offers a framework within which those tensions could be accommodated, addressing key reform challenges, developing solutions, coordination, and rapid problem-solving. But NATO will need to judiciously re-invigorate and manage the working group in lockstep with a plurality of Ukrainian partners and to align the work within the EU Recovery Plan. Integrating bilateral security governance programmes into a multi-institutional cooperation format will also be a key challenge.


Reviving JWGDR will be a key test of NATO’s competencies, partnerships, and leadership on security governance issues. At the same time, the convening power of NATO and its partners in Ukraine is not to be underestimated, even if


[1] National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, ‘A meeting with representative of the NATO International Staff Marcin Kozhiel took place at the NSDC Staff’, 10th October 2021, 

[2] The standard presentation was subsequently recycled in several instances: ‘Priority Reform Lines for the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces of Ukraine’, January 2020, available at:

[3] ‘Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs and certain other agencies have approached the organisational development and building of public policy capacities outside of the general public administration reform framework in a slower process that does not allow comparative assessment of their progress.’ EU Commission, ‘EU Association Agreement Implementation Report on Ukraine 2019’, SWD (2019) 433 final, p. 6, available at:

[4] EU Commission, ‘EU Association Agreement Implementation Report on Ukraine 2019’, p.11.

[5] NATO, ‘Speech by NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller at the Kyiv Security Forum 13th April 2018’, available at:

[6] Their protracted development was exhaustively documented in: Institute for Security Governance, Status of National Security and Defense Planning in Ukraine, 29 May 2020.

[7] Council of the European Union, ‘European Peace Facility: Council adopts assistance measures for Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and the Republic of Mali’, 2nd December 2021, available at:

[8] See Alinea International, ‘New Alinea project to strengthen Ukraine security’, 1st October 2020, available at: 

[9] See Parliamentary Centre, Project Update PASS Ukraine, February 2021, available at:

[11] NB. Equivalent of the Chief of General Staff in other armed forces.

[12] As NAKO’s Head of Policy and Research wrote in June this year: ‘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.’ Svitlana Musiiaka, ‘Against all Odds: Ukraine’s Defence Reform Process’, NAKO in the Media, 8th July 2022, available at:

[13] See, for example, EU Commission, ‘EU Association Agreement Implementation Report on Ukraine 2019’, SWD (2019) 433 final, available at: and EU Commission, ‘Association Agreement Implementation Report on Ukraine’, SWD (2020) 329 final, available at:

[14] NATO, PCSC, PARP, Partnership Goals 2021: Ukraine (Unclassified Document).

[15] NATO, PCSC, PARP, Partnership Goals 2021: Ukraine, pp. 1-4.

[16] See, for example, opening comments in: Philipp Fluri, Oleksiy Melnyk, Nazli Yildirim, Key Issues and Policy Recommendations: Governance and Reform of State Security Services - Best Practices (Third International Conference, 24 May 2016), (Kyiv, Razumkov Centre: 2017), p. 11. Available at:

About the Author(s)

Eden Cole is Co-Founder and Director of Raidillon Associates and an Executive-in-Residence at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. The views expressed here are his own and are expressed in a private capacity.