Ukraine’s military forces are vastly outmanned and outgunned by Russia’s, but they may be able to mount a strong enough fight to compel Russian President Vladimir Putin to pay a price in the thousands of lives lost in any fresh invasion.
According to Western military observers, Ukraine’s army is better prepared, equipped, and motivated to protect the country’s core than it was in 2014, when Russia took the Crimean peninsula without a struggle.
They believe it is exceedingly improbable that Putin will consider an outright takeover of Ukraine for these reasons.
“There won’t be a huge red arrow flying through Ukraine. I don’t believe the Russians have the potential or desire to totally invade Ukraine and seize control of the entire nation “Ben Hodges, a former US lieutenant general who currently works for the Center for European Policy Analysis, echoed this sentiment.
He and others said that Russia may advance south and west from Ukraine’s Donbass area, which is now under pro-Russian control, to join up with seized Crimea and the Black Sea. Even that more limited goal, though, would result in significant Russian deaths.
Siemon Wezeman, an arms specialist at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said the scale of resistance to any invasion would dwarf anything Russia had faced in previous military operations in Chechnya in the 1990s or in its short war with Georgia in 2008.
“Yes it can defeat, say, the high level of Ukrainian forces, but try to invade a country like Ukraine with a population that is clearly against you, which is armed to the teeth, where most males have at least rudimentary military training that they can still remember. You’re going into an area which is Chechnya multiplied by 10, or Georgia multiplied by 30,” he said.
“It’s not going to be a walkover. And then you have to defend to your own population as Russian president that you just suffered 10,000 losses in the first few days because you were stupid enough to support the Donbass rebels. I don’t think that’s going to resonate very well in Russia.”
Ukraine says 92,000 Russian troops have gathered near its borders, and the United States has said a Russian invasion by a force as large as 175,000 could come as early as January.
Moscow denies menacing its neighbor and say it can move its troops around as it sees fit on its own territory. It says it perceives a threat from Ukraine’s growing ties with NATO – which Kyiv seeks one day to join – and is demanding security guarantees from the West to defuse the crisis.
In terms of manpower and weapons, the arithmetic looks grim for Ukraine.
Russia’s army of 280,000 is about twice the size of Ukraine’s and its total armed forces of 900,000 are more than four times greater. Its 2,840 battle tanks outnumber Ukraine’s by more than three to one, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
While Ukraine trebled its defense budget in real terms from 2010 to 2020, its total defense expenditure last year amounted to only $4.3 billion, or one-tenth of Russia’s.
“In terms of air defense and electronic warfare, there is a huge gap between these two forces. It’s difficult to see how Ukraine could not be completely overwhelmed from the air,” said IISS research analyst Yohann Michel.
Russia would seek to use its superiority in electronic warfare to paralyze its adversary’s command and control and cut off communications with units in the field, he said.
But Ukraine’s combat experience in Donbass and its short-range air defenses and anti-tank weaponry – which includes U.S.-supplied Javelin missiles – would help to slow any Russian advance.
“It will not be a piece of cake because there is still a large number of (Ukrainian) troops. The majority of them are well motivated, so they will probably fight until the last moment,” Michel said.
Even a defeated Ukraine could “open their arms depot”, distribute weapons to the population and leave the Russians facing a kind of guerrilla warfare that would make it painful to hold onto any captured territory. “I would not want to be in six months in any area the Russians would have seized,” he said.
Putin would likely face qualms from his own public about waging war on a fellow Slav nation, as well as intense anti-Russian sentiment within Ukraine.
Former U.S. lieutenant general Hodges said that while the numbers were stacked against Ukraine, “as you know from history, warfare is never just about math”.
“The Ukrainian population will be very hostile, the further west that Russian forces might go. This will be very, very costly for Russian forces,” he said. “The reward, the payoff, would have to be really worthwhile to keep (Putin’s) own domestic population in support.”