Ukraine’s military has some advantages on Russia

A Ukrainian soldier was on one side of a fence, with unidentified armed men on the other side blocking the headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy in Sevastopol.


A Ukrainian soldier was on one side of a fence, with unidentified armed men on the other side blocking the headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy in Sevastopol.

WASHINGTON — As the situation in Crimea grows increasingly tense, more depressing prospects are beginning to emerge. Perhaps the worst is that Ukraine would have to fight to retain its territory and military facilities on the peninsula.

Judging by numbers alone, a war between Russia and Ukraine would seem to be a very lopsided one. But the Ukrainian military has a few important things going for it, including a loyal force that is less widely dispersed. It also has no reason to fire first.


‘‘I think most experts would agree that a fight between the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces would not be a fair fight,’’ said Marybeth Ulrich, a professor in the US Army War College’s Department of National Security and Strategy. ‘‘While Ukraine has a good number of forces, they are vastly outnumbered by Russia.’’

Ulrich put the number of active-duty troops in the Ukrainian military at nearly 130,000, compared with 845,000 for Russia.

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‘‘The air and naval assets decidedly favor Russia too,’’ Ulrich continued. ‘‘There is not much to speak of with regard to the Ukrainian navy (17 assorted vessels) vs. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (Russia has 171 vessels overall) which of course is situated right in Crimea and has been instrumental in taking control of Crimea from within.’’

War is not just about the numbers, however, and there are some bright spots for the Ukrainian military.

So far at least, the military is loyal, and Ukrainians view their military with significant national pride.


‘‘I am Russian myself; I was born there,’’ one member of the Ukrainian force at a marine base told the Guardian newspaper. ‘‘But we are professional soldiers and we have given an oath of duty. We will not give up this place without a fight.’’

Although there have been defections in the Ukrainian navy, so far they seem to be limited, rather remarkable given the country’s ethnic divides.

The Russian intervention might actually unite Ukrainians behind the military.

‘‘If the military is unified against a foreign invader,’’ said Matthew Clements, deputy head of Europe and CIS analysis at IHS Country Risk, ‘‘with the support of the majority of the population, then that would be an important morale booster.’’

Russia’s military is more expansive, but also more extended.

Mark Galeotti, a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, has argued that although Ukraine’s military is small, it is ‘‘big enough.’’ One reason is that Russia’s armed forces are not just for invading Ukraine.

Russia ‘‘cannot afford politically or even economically to assemble more than a fraction of these forces for a war,’’ Galeotti explained in an article for Blouin News. ‘‘It cannot denude its other borders, nor strip the North Caucasus of troops. Many are also unsuited to such a conflict, such as the nuclear forces or the Pacific Fleet.’’

The Russian intervention might actually unite Ukrainians behind the military.

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Russia might be able to muster twice the number of troops as Ukraine, Galeotti says. And that might not be enough.

Ukraine’s military leaders can play it cool.

For all the similarities to the conflict with Georgia in 2008, there is one big difference: Georgia fired first. In 2008, it was Georgian troops who attacked posts in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, drawing Russia’s wrath.

So far, Ukrainian troops and their leaders have not given Russia any reason to react.

Russia trounced Georgia in 2008, but its victory was not as easy as many would have expected. And although the Russian military has spent the past six years modernizing, doubts may linger in commanders’ heads.

They may not want to attack unless they truly must.

Kimberly Marten, a political scientist at Columbia University, says the significant Russian population in Crimea means that it is probably better to influence the region rather than to invade it and possibly have to take on the Ukrainian military.

The same thing is probably true for many other parts of eastern Ukraine, too. For the reasons above and many more, a Russian war with Ukraine just does not seem rational.

That does not mean it will not happen.

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