- We asked military experts to assess the strengths of Ukraine and Russia should the latter move on its threat to invade.
- Russia could be in for a surprise: Ukraine has been fighting in Donbass for seven years. Its skills and equipment are vastly improved.
- The wildcard is the level of NATO and US support for Ukraine, experts said.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Russia began huge military exercises in Crimea and along the border with Ukraine Thursday, using more than 100,000 troops — backed by heavy armour, airpower, and naval units in the Black Sea — in what many feared was a prelude to an invasion of Ukraine. And then, a day later, Russia’s President Putin announced he would pull back those troops.
No one knows what his next move will be. But if Russia were to invade, how likely would it be that they could “win”? We asked some experts who have studied both militaries for an assessment.
Russia’s military, like its population, is more than triple the size of Ukraine’s. But should Putin order an invasion he will not find it as easy as it did in 2014, when Russian special forces and local irregular militias seized control of the Crimea and much of Ukraine border with Russia without much resistance.
The reason? Ukraine now has seven years of experience fighting in the Russian-speaking breakaway republic of Donbass, with losses of nearly 10,000 troops in that period. It has also increased its spending and the modernization of its forces with the help of the US and NATO. Donbass was formally part of Ukraine until 2014.
“Ukraine lost a lot of people fighting in Donbass and have learned a lot in that time period,” said a NATO military intelligence officer, who agreed to assess each side’s capabilities in exchange for anonymity.
“They’re brave and very patriotic, Ukrainians have no lack of motivation to fight Russians and they’ve been fighting along that front for seven years,” said the NATO official. “They have very much improved every aspect of what was in 2014 a rotten organization and can really support troops in the field. There’s no more sneakers and homemade ammo pouches.”
In 2014, Ukraine’s underfunded and obsolete Soviet-era military was essentially unable to respond to the events in Donbass and Crimea, leaving Ukrainians to form self-styled and often locally supported militias. While several remain active on the front lines today, Ukraine’s military is now capable of holding its positions and would inflict heavy casualties on a Russian attack, said a former UK special forces soldier, who has spent considerable time in Donbass providing security for media organizations.
‘There’s no level of digging-in that can compensate for the Russian advantage in electronic warfare, cruise missiles and airpower’
“The Ukrainians are dug in deep and have their artillery dug in and properly sighted,” said the former soldier, who declined to be named. “They’re very brave lads and after this many years they have experienced NCOs…