Does Ukraine’s Military Stand a Chance Against the Russians?
Should Ukraine and Russia go to war, Kiev’s smaller, poorer and less organized army probably won’t last long.
Estimates of Russia’s active military enrollment are all over the place, but let’s assume an army of around 300,000 soldiers. Ukraine’s army has fewer than 150,000—not counting reserves, because neither side is likely to get much value out of those.
Russia has a 15,000 or 20,000 tanks versus perhaps 5,000 for Ukraine. How many tanks are operational is a wholly different matter.
Moscow possesses close to 2,000 combat aircraft versus only a few hundred for Ukraine—and let’s not even bother comparing naval strength.
Russia’s numerical superiority is significant enough, but countries such as Israel have managed to win despite being outnumbered. While Ukraine doesn’t have the very latest weaponry, it did inherit plenty of very capable systems from the late Soviet Union, including Su-27 jet fighters and T-80 tanks.
No, the real flaw in the Ukrainian army is its poor readiness. “Ukraine’s military suffers from a number of key structural weaknesses that severely undermine its nominal strength,” geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor asserts.
Budget estimates vary, but Moscow’s 2013 military spending was probably close to $100 billion, compared to Kiev’s $2 billion. “Ukraine could not hope to adequately maintain its over-sized equipment inventory,” Stratfor notes. Constrained funding also limits training.
Thus most of Ukraine’s tanks are in storage and will stay there. As for the air force, Stratfor points out that “photos of the 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade stationed in the dual civilian-military airport of Belbek [in Crimea], which the Russians recently seized, show numerous mothballed fighter aircraft unfit for immediate service.”
Though all militaries love to bewail their alleged budget woes, in Ukraine a first-year soldier is paid “two times below the national average salary,” according to the military’s 2011 white book. “This does not encourage the citizens of Ukraine to consider military service as a career.”
There is one more flaw—the most insidious of all—that could undermine Ukraine in a war against Russia. That is the possibility that Ukrainian troops could defect to Russia. While western Ukraine leans toward Western Europe, the eastern portion of the country is ethnically and politically Russian.
“The transitional government in Kiev understands that it cannot fully rely on the loyalty of the armed forces, so sending them into conventional battle against the Russians would risk substantial defections,” Stratfor warns. “Indeed, Ukraine’s military leadership has seen a number of changes over the last month, highlighting the lack of dependability even at its highest echelons.”
Perhaps much of this sounds familiar? It should, because these same problems afflicted the Russian military after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the wake of Russia’s disastrous invasion of Chechnya in 1994, the armed forces were a mess. Some of those problems—poor logistics and training, in particular—were still visible during the brief 2008 war with Georgia.
The Russian military appears to have recovered its effectiveness. In the event of war, the Ukrainians will probably be out-numbered, out-spent and possibly even out-motivated.