Ukraine’s military power has improved since Russian-backed rebels took control of the eastern part of the country in 2014 - but Russia still dwarfs it in comparison.
More than 90,000 Russian soldiers have been deployed by Moscow along its border with Ukraine, a country whose pro-Western policies have triggered Vladimir Putin’s wrath. In an April article, the Russian leader has signalled that Moscow will not allow Kiev to become a part of the Western alliance - be it the European Union or NATO.
While Kiev — which was also the capital of the first Russian state going back to the 9th century — counts on the US-led Western alliance’s support, Moscow appears to have little doubts about the success of any sort of invasion.
Despite being armed by Western nations since 2014, when pro-Russian rebels took control of eastern Ukraine from the central government forces, Kiev cannot do much to change the political status in the part of the country heavily populated by Russian-speakers.
However, it does not mean that Ukrainians do not have military capability. But in every area from the number of tanks to the strength of air force and active military personnel numbers, Russia dwarfs Ukraine.
Here is a brief roundup on Ukraine’s weapons as well as its manpower.
Ukraine's military power
Kiev has nearly 255,000 active military personnel alongside 900,000 reservists, which is a high number for a country the size of Ukraine (just over 44 million people). But Russia’s total manpower including reservists exceeds three millions, a number which is more than the US, the world’s most powerful armed force.
Ukraine has a lot of tanks and is ranked 13th across the globe with 2,430. In terms of armored vehicles, Kiev also ranks high, occupying the seventh spot globally with 11,435. Kiev’s artillery power is also formidable at 2,040 batteries. But compared to Russia, which has the world’s largest tank repertoire, and being the third largest artillery power, it’s not much.
But Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, a diplomat who knows Russia and its connections with former Soviet republics like Ukraine very well, thinks that the “Ukrainian military has proven to be a very effective fighting force since 2014.”
“It has acquired all sorts of new military technologies, weapons and of course Turkish drones but also javelin anti-tank missiles from the US. The Ukrainian army has simply gained experience on the ground, showing great valour and effectiveness on the battlefields,” he tells TRT World.
In 2019, Kiev acquired Turkish drones, which have shown its military prowess in different battlefields from Libya to Syria and most recently Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region disputed between Baku and Yerevan.
Also last month, the Ukrainian parliament ratified the country’s crucial agreement with Turkey, ensuring Turkish military aid to Kiev. Turkey will assist the Ukrainian military as it helped Azerbaijani armed forces during their successful fight against occupying Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
But in a potential conflict between Russia and Ukraine, experts think that Turkey will not be involved in the way it was when Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war.
While Bryza believes the Ukrainian military has improved since 2014, he still thinks that “Ukraine could never defeat an all-out Russian invasion.” But a possible Russian invasion will be costly to Moscow in both financial and military terms, according to Bryza. As a result, the Russians would not resort to such a costly adventure against Ukraine, he believes.
Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, thinks it will be a liability for Russia and they will have “nothing to gain from it.” He notes that Russia will be condemned as an aggressor on the grounds that it is not being attacked by Ukraine.
Do Ukrainians want to fight?
Simons also thinks that military capabilities only make sense when a nation and its army have the will to fight back a possible invasion with a united front. Ukrainians can not “put up a good fight” against Russians due to divisions inside the society, according to Simons.
There are differing accounts regarding who the Ukrainians are due to the country’s complicated history. Some parts of present-day Ukraine were under the former Austro-Hungarian Empire in the past while other parts were ruled by the former Russian Empire and Poland respectively.
Even during WWII, some ancestors of the current Ukrainians fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviets while others appeared to stay loyal to Moscow. That past still hovers over the country as some Neo-Nazi groups with strong pro-West tendencies vow to fight Russia, even helping form militias like the Azov Battalion.
Now strangely, the US and its allies might find themselves in the awkward position of backing far-right Ukrainian militias against Putin’s Russia to save their ally from Moscow’s aggression.
While “ideologically-motivated” groups such as the Azov might want to fight the Russians, average Ukrainians are “skeptical” toward a fight with Moscow, Simons observes. Having been part of larger Ukrainian society, many Ukrainian soldiers will also have some second-thoughts about fighting, he tells TRT World.
The Western bloc wants to believe that with a lot of weapons and manpower, the Ukrainians will not surrender easily to Russians. But Simons points out that “if soldiers don’t have a will to fight” then it won’t make much of a difference.
He gives the anti-communist US-backed South Vietnamese government’s failure as an example. Despite having a lot of soldiers and military equipment, Saigon could not resist Vietnamese communist forces. He also gives the more recent example of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan.
He also draws attention to “a growing gulf” between the Volodymyr Zelensky government and the average Ukrainian citizen from which Ukrainian soldiers mostly hail.
In terms of resisting Russia, Ukraine’s problems are not limited to issues of national identify. Moscow is not only a culturally close country to Kiev due to the historical ties between the two Slavic-majority nations with a common Orthodox Christian faith but also a difficult enemy, which has not lost many wars in the last two centuries.
Neither Napoleon's Imperial Army nor Hitler’s Nazi forces could defeat Moscow. But Afghanistan’s US-backed Mujahideen put up a fight against Moscow back in the 1980s when the Soviet Union ruled the vast lands of Russia and had to eventually retreat from the country.
Some Western analysts predict that even if Russians are able to defeat Kiev, Ukrainian anti-Russia militias dominated by far-right elements might put up a bloody guerrilla warfare against Russian invading forces, inflicting heavy losses.
Simons sees a lot of “presumptive thinking” in those predictions. “Maybe that might be the case,” he says. But he thinks that compared to World War II conditions, a lot of things have changed in present-day Ukraine, where the youth might not find enough motivation to fight Russia.
But Bryza disagrees with Simons on the Ukrainian will to fight. “Of course Ukrainians don’t want to have to fight with the Russian military. But if Russia invades, they will definitely fight,” the former US diplomat says.
“They will fight hard and effectively. They will impose serious losses on Russian forces and Putin understands that.”