By David Iakobidze
The mass military build-up of the Russian side on the border put the security of Ukraine into question. According to US intelligence, the number of Russian soldiers near the Ukrainian border can increase up to 175 000 in the near future. Although sources vary, it can be assumed that Putin has deployed a big chunk of its manpower, tanks, and artillery near the Ukrainian frontier. In the meantime, questions about the Ukrainian military and its capabilities arose. Because of this, it is highly important to understand whether the current army of Ukraine is able to deter the invasion and to what extent will the resistance towards the Russian army vary in case of war.
The beginning of the crisis
It all started with the Bucharest summit in 2008 when the western powers declared that Ukraine and Georgia would become part of NATO. It was horrible news for the Kremlin as the NATO expansion to the east would mean the demise of its plans to regain control of post-Soviet states. As a result, Russia acted quickly and in August of the same year, invaded Georgia and ever since maintained the military presence in the lands gained after the war. In 2014, it was Ukraine’s turn – Putin annexed Crimea and supported the creation of the separatist states in the Donbas region. As one could imagine, the speed of the Donbas and Crimean overtake put a lot of questions towards the efficiency of the Ukrainian military. What many people forget, however, is the state of the Ukrainian armed forces during the crisis in 2014.
By the time of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian army consisted of 6000 combat-ready troops most of whom lacked the basic supplies such as ammunition, medical kits and footwear. In the case of technology, Ukraine depended on outdated tanks, airplanes, and artillery, most of which were produced in the Soviet period and were of no use in modern combat. More importantly, the army lacked much-needed experience to oppose the invaders. Looking at the situation of the Ukrainian military in 2014 from the present perspective, there are no doubts left to understand the reasons why Russia was able to swiftly occupy the Crimea and Donbas region without much resistance. The Russian invasion backfired, however, as lessons were learned by Ukrainians and after the crisis, with the support of its western partners, mass rearmament began in the army – the Kremlin motivated the Ukrainian government and the NATO to start joint training and weapon renewal programs ever since.
The Contemporary state of the Ukrainian and Russian Forces
As of today, Ukraine’s military numbers are up to 150 000 men, having significantly increased in ranks since 2014. It should also be mentioned that the overall contribution of the United States equals $2.5 billion, supplying the Ukrainian army with new radar systems, anti-tank missiles, ammunition, and patrol boats. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Ukraine’s military spending has grown from 1.6 percent of the total GDP to 4 percent in 2021. What can be assumed from the following numbers is that this time Ukraine will be ready for Russian aggression and unlike in 2014, Putin will pay dearly through the hands of the Ukrainian resistance.
One of the deadliest weapons Ukraine has purchased in the recent period is the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile, which can help the Ukrainian army halt Russian advances. In 2018, The Ukrainian army purchased 37 Javelins with 210 missiles. By October 2021 the United States had supplied Ukraine with some additional 30 Javelins and 180 missiles as part of its annual military aid. The effect of the Javelins remains undoubted, as it can penetrate through the tank’s strong armour and destroy it from a distance of up to 4,750 metres. Given the fact that Russia mostly uses outdated t-72 and t-90 tanks in its arsenal, the Javelins can cause huge damage to the Kremlin’s army. This opinion is reinforced by the fact that in 2021, Ukraine has hosted joint military drills with the US and NATO forces, learning how to efficiently use Javelin anti-tank missiles as well as other weaponry utilised by NATO.
When talking about a possible invasion, one should also pay attention to the state of the Russian army at present time. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia faced some huge economic consequences and thus was not able to fund its military and catch up with other major powers. This problem became even more visible in the war against Georgia when the Russian army was unable to act cooperatively and suffered unnecessary losses against weaker counterparts due to the lack of modern equipment and untrained leadership whose tactics could not adjust to modern warfare. In 2011, a new plan to rearm Russian armed forces was announced, with the Kremlin hoping to modernise 70 percent of its advanced weaponry by 2020. However, the annexation of Crimea and the harsh economic sanctions that followed disrupted the modernization of the Russian army. As a result, only 50 percent of Russia’s ground forces can be considered modern. In 2015, Russia unveiled a new-generation T-14 Armata tank, which possesses an updated modular armour system and fire control that could create a lot of problems for the opposition. The Kremlin planned to produce at least 2300 T-14 Armata tanks by 2020, but the cost of production and the budget of Russian armed forces allowed to produce merely 130 of the following models. The point here is that although Russia has managed to somewhat develop half of its military, the economic problems and the shortage of budget has not allowed Putin to expand and strengthen its army on a sufficient level to compete with other major powers.
Trump Cards of Both Sides
In case of the Russian invasion, Russia will undoubtedly use its long border with Ukraine to launch attacks from different directions. To compare, Russia outnumbers Ukraine in terms of air and ground forces, with approximately 120 000 soldiers deployed near Ukraine at this moment. The Ukrainian government would anticipate the Kremlin to attack from Crimea, as well as from the Donbas region. The biggest threat may arise from Belarus however, where Moscow has already deployed its units for joint exercises. Considering the fact that Kyiv is located just south of the Belarusian border, Putin can use those troops to attack from the north and overstretch already outnumbered Ukrainian forces. Past experiences suggest that with the use of Russia’s new Su-57 and Su-35 fighters, their air force will play a massive role in Putin’s plans to win the war as soon as possible. Kyiv has already informed its partners that Ukraine is lacking air defence systems to oppose the Russian threat. Thus, it can be said that the massive issues of the Ukrainian air defences and the overstretched front gives Moscow a clear advantage over its counterparts.
Although the Ukrainian army has come a long way since 2014 and now possesses a much greater threat to Russia, the unequal distribution of capabilities still favours Moscow. Ukrainian leadership understands that they will get overwhelmed in case of invasion from different frontiers. Despite that, the Ukrainian army can use its newly purchased Javelins and Drone systems to blow heavy casualties on the Russian army and make Putin rethink whether the cost of war is worth the result. Another tested and effective tactic, in case of an invasion, is guerrilla warfare which has caused a lot of trouble for the Russian army in Chechen wars. Taking into consideration that a lot of Ukrainians have joined the army as volunteers, and the determination of the citizens to oppose the invasion is stronger than ever, we can expect Ukraine to base its strategy on inflicting heavy losses on Putin’s army and hoping that the Russian advance will be halted due to the high casualties.
Overall, it can be assumed that in case of an attack, the Russian military will face considerable resistance, but due to the massive superiority in numbers, Moscow will be able to achieve limited gains in eastern Ukraine. The casualties caused by Ukraine’s ground forces and guerrillas, nevertheless, can put Russia in an unfavourable position and could cause the Kremlin to abandon its plan of a full-scale invasion.
*** Curious to read more on the topic from the perception of a former Director-General of Military Staff at NATO? Then make sure to read this article!