As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, both Russian and Ukrainian forces are at risk of running out of weapons and equipment. Tanks, guns, and long-range missile systems have been destroyed in battles across Ukraine, and both armies are burning through munitions at a furious rate. Russia has worked to increase its defense production and is channeling munitions straight from its factories to the frontlines. On the Ukrainian side, despite the quantities of weapons and supplies that have poured into its armories, relatively little of this war materiel has come from the production line. Instead, it has come from existing stockpiles, principally from Kyiv’s allies and supporters. The United States has been Ukraine’s most generous supplier, and the Biden administration has begun to take further action, asking Congress in March to authorize funding for multiyear procurements of munitions that would provide manufacturers with the incentives and security necessary to invest in increased capacity. This change augurs a greater shift: for the first time since the end of World War II, the United States may once again become—in U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s words from 1940—the “great arsenal of democracy.”

The war in Ukraine has underscored the importance of alliances and partnerships. At the beginning of the war, Russia had an overwhelming advantage. Moscow’s active-duty military had more than five times as many fighters as Kyiv’s, in addition to more weapons systems and larger stockpiles of armor, artillery, and aircraft. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, those numbers, combined with the assumption that Russian troops would be welcomed as liberators, contributed to his confidence that the war would be won quickly. But Ukraine has fought far more doggedly than Moscow anticipated, and it has been able to draw on the West’s military industrial might in doing so.

Moreover, at the same time that many advanced industrialized countries provided Ukraine with intelligence, materiel, and training, they hit Russia with sanctions, isolating it from world trade and global supply chains. Without this support from the West, Kyiv would not have been able to stay in the fight or liberate areas under Russian occupation. The lesson, then, is clear: in contemporary warfare, a country that has limited defense production capacity need not be at a military disadvantage, as long as it can acquire what it needs from foreign sources. And conversely, a country with very large capacity may struggle if it is cut off from global supply chains. In other words, industrial giants, like Russia, can no longer count on their ability to manufacture what they need, whereas countries with smaller economies, like Ukraine, may not need to manufacture what they require. The war in Ukraine ha s shown that, for small countries, allies matter more than factories.


Although Ukraine has worked in recent years to build its own military industrial capacity, that is not the primary driver of its success against Russia. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it inherited a sizable defense industrial base. Its 140 science and technical institutions and over 700 factories were consolidated into Ukroboronprom, a state-owned industrial conglomerate, which was plagued by a fragmented regulatory structure. Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 brought home to Kyiv the inadequacy of its forces and their inability to mount an effective defense. Thereafter, Ukraine embarked on a military transformation, including organizational reforms and new investments in defense capabilities. To that end, in 2020, Ukraine established the Ministry of Strategic Industries to support and rationalize the country’s defense industrial base. This modernization included restructuring Ukroboronprom, which became a joint-stock company in October 2021, and implementing several reforms aimed at reducing corruption. Kyiv also produced a new national security strategy that classified Russia as a long-term threat and called for developing “closer ties with the European Union, NATO and the United States.”

In fact, Ukraine’s security leadership had recognized engagement with the West as a strategic imperative long ago. In September 2014, after Russia’s seizure of Crimea, Ukraine hosted troops from the United States and 14 other NATO member states for a series of military exercises called “Rapid Trident.” These occurred annually until 2022 and served to enhance Ukraine’s coordination with NATO on both an operational and tactical level. After Russia’s 2022 invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky embarked on a global campaign to gain international assistance in Ukraine’s fight against Russia. This high-profile public relations effort has proven effective in pushing the West to deliver the crucial weapons systems and munitions that Ukraine needs.

Ukraine’s pivot to the West has paid enormous dividends since the war began. According to a January report from the Congressional Research Service, “much of U.S. assistance has been focused on providing systems and capabilities that Ukraine’s domestic defense industry cannot produce.” The United States has also provided equipment that can be deployed immediately. During the war’s first year, Ukraine’s allies and partners—including Canada, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States—delivered the tens of billions of dollars’ worth of security assistance that has enabled Kyiv not only to mount a strong resistance but also to recapture some of the territory seized by Russia in the opening phases of the invasion.


By contrast, Russia has a vast military-industrial complex but more limited access to foreign supply chains. On paper, its production capabilities are formidable: Russia’s defense industrial base employs well over two million people, and it is the world’s second-largest defense exporter after the United States. But focusing on these figures does not present the full picture. Russia’s industrial base suffers from top-down and often secretive decision-making, endemic corruption, cronyism, and a lack of transparency that has led to a substantial waste of resources and outright theft. The country’s industrial management is so centralized that it is common for those who serve on the supervisory Military-Industrial Commission of Russia to also sit on the executive boards of the state-owned conglomerates that they are supposed to oversee. As a result, oversight is weak, and contracting officers and other officials within the defense industrial base’s bureaucracy are reluctant to scrutinize the institutions’ shortcomings for fear of inviting the Kremlin’s ire.

Russia’s industrial base has also been degraded by Western sanctions , the most significant of which were applied after the invasion. In October, the U.S. Department of Commerce asserted that these had worked as intended, cutting Russia off from crucial global supply chains and limiting its ability to replace weapons lost in the war. At that time, the U.S. government estimated these losses as being more than 6,000 pieces of military equipment, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry fighting vehicles. One of Russia’s major tank producers, Uralvagonzavod, has experienced production challenges caused by a lack of foreign components and has had to furlough its employees. Moreover, Russia’s production of both hypersonic ballistic missiles and next-generation early warning aircraft systems has nearly ceased because of a lack of semiconductors from abroad. It has attempted to evade the impact of the current sanctions through a variety of strategies, ranging from using third-party intermediaries to disguising the identities of the end users, and has continued with some exports.

Russia has also turned to new sources to bolster its military capabilities. Initially, Western intelligence officials identified Iran and North Korea as providing weapons systems to Russia, although both Tehran and Pyongyang have denied this. It is known, though, that Iran has been supplying Russia with drones, as fragments have been found on the battlefield. North Korea has reportedly supplied rockets and artillery shells. More recently, there have been accounts of other countries providing critical supplies. In February, it was disclosed that Turkey had sold machinery, electronics, and spare parts to Russia, including some U.S.-made items, in violation of export controls. That same month, The Wall Street Journal reported that China had supplied Russia with microchips and other dual-use items, as well as raw materials including aluminum oxide. In March, the United States government confirmed that Chinese ammunition had been used on the battlefield.


The dramatic mismatch in the level of foreign military, intelligence, and economic support provided to Ukraine and to Russia has played a fundamental role in the conflict. Even more than the relative strength of the two militaries, this disparity has accounted for the war’s length and Ukraine’s growing confidence that it may survive as an independent country and regain at least some of its territory. The current war of attrition has become a contest between the two sides’ industrial bases, and both face challenges.

For Russia, sanctions have limited its ability to produce the weapons and supplies that it needs, although it has been pushing to expand its industrial production. For Ukraine, its factories and installations have been severely damaged by Russian attacks, although the country’s scientists and technicians have continued to work on new capabilities, including kamikaze drones with the potential to reach into Russian territory. Ukraine’s lost industrial capacity has been made up for by supplies from its international allies. The range of weapons that they have provided to Kyiv have come principally from their own existing stockpiles. These systems and munitions were not produced for Ukraine, and much of what has been delivered represents yesterday’s industrial base. But their quality and effectiveness on the battlefield have demonstrated the importance of access to reliable defense production. For Ukraine’s allies, the conflict has not yet—for the most part—become a war requiring the mobilization of their own industrial bases, although that is changing.

In order to refill their inventories and prepare for a possible future war in the Pacific, Ukraine’s allies must identify and address their own defense production challenges. To restock its depleted inventories, Washington will need to engage the full industrial might of its defense economy. Given the number of weapons and munitions that have been sent to Ukraine, this may require investment in additional capacity to replace what has been shipped and prepare for any future engagement. Critics of Washington’s current industrial base who worry that its capacity is inadequate have often focused on only one part of the ecosystem—the companies that manufacture weapons. If there are gaps, however, these need to be addressed by the government, by both the executive branch—through the Department of Defense requirements process that identifies what is needed—and by Congress. The latter funds and approves the multiyear contracts necessary for the investments required to build capacity. By working together, industry and government can produce what no single institution can accomplish alone.

Strengthening industrial and other ties among Western allies may prove crucial in a future war.

Increasing the capacity of the U.S. defense industry is not the only way of making the United States an effective “great arsenal of democracy.” So-called ally shoring, which involves working with partner countries on sourcing goods, means that necessary investments can be shared or even avoided if there is unused industrial capacity in partner countries. This shared approach allows U.S. manufacturers to focus on producing more advanced systems and allies to focus on manufacturing legacy systems overseas in a partnership that allows each to play to its strengths. The resulting strengthening of industrial and other ties among Western allies may prove crucial in a future war—or even in the continued effort in Ukraine.

The lesson from the war in Ukraine on the importance of allies is clear. It would have been extraordinarily difficult, perhaps impossible, for Ukraine to keep fighting as long or as effectively as it has without a continual inflow of weapons from foreign countries—and without the sanctions that have limited Russia’s own access to global supply chains. In contemporary warfare, a small country can make up for its relatively limited production capacity through firm connections to global suppliers. The unanswered questions surround how China and Taiwan will take note of these lessons and incorporate them into their own plans. The United States must do the same, working with its allies and developing its capabilities as tensions mount over Taiwan.

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  • CYNTHIA COOK is Director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and Senior Fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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