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Ukraine still outgunned as Russia prepares for larger conflict


Russia’s unexplained buildup along Ukraine’s border set alarm bells ringing in the west last month as military analysts noted unusual flourishes – such as new field hospitals, long-distance shipments of armour and artillery and last-minute railcar bookings – that did not feel like a normal exercise.

Whether it is merely an attention-grabbing feint or a prelude to an escalation will depend on the Kremlin’s will. But through the buildup, Russia has already signalled that if a larger war does take place, it is prepared to deliver a hammer blow to its neighbour.

“My take is that all the signalling from Russia’s side is that the next war with Ukraine will be a much larger one … and that it will result in a much larger defeat in terms of Ukrainian force. That’s at least what they’re posturing,” said Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, referring to the troop buildup and rhetoric from Kremlin officials. At least so far, he said, Russia was making its buildup “very easy to see and find”.

The message has reached US and Nato officials, who have reaffirmed their support for Kyiv and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions. Joe Biden has proposed holding a presidential summit with Vladimir Putin. The foreign ministers of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are expected to visit the conflict zone on Thursday.

Ever since the outbreak of war in 2014, the militaries of Ukraine and Russia have prepared their troops for a larger conflict. Over those years, Russia’s ground forces have modernised considerably, seeing combat in Ukraine and Syria and deploying permanently along the border.

Ukraine, too, has retooled its military, which has fought a grinding war in the country’s east for seven years, boosting defence spending and seeking to recruit international support to ward off an aggressive neighbour with far greater resources.

“I would say that we have done the absolute best, or at least very well, that we could based on the funding and constraints we had,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a Kyiv-based military analyst, noting significant “quantitative improvements” in terms of building up numbers of troops, artillery, air defence systems and operational aircraft.

That buildup has had its limits in terms of acquiring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and secure communications equipment and modernising battle tanks, he said, but there has been much better maintenance of existing stock than up to 2014. “What has changed is we now maintain the Soviet heritage much better than we had,” he said.

At the outbreak of the 2014 war, Ukraine’s military was barely in a position to fight a war. The vast majority of its troops seemed unable to carry out orders, and much of its equipment, including armour and aircraft, was not battle-ready. In the early stages of the conflict, volunteer battalions filled out the ranks on the frontlines. “The army was in tatters, in freefall, I would say. A couple more years of this and the army would have been nonexistent,” said Bielieskov.

Since then, defence spending in Ukraine has increased from $1.9bn to more than $4.7bn, allowing Ukraine to build up to 38 line and artillery brigades. Much of the investment has gone toward artillery, he noted, after battles in 2014-15 showed that the Ukrainian military was outgunned by Russia’s UAV-guided long-range fire, which caused up to 80% of casualties among Ukrainian fighters. Combat experience and training have also improved across the armed forces and the officer corps. A former diplomat in Kyiv called it a “major overhaul”.

Still, Russia maintains a larger and more advanced military force (its military spending is 10 times greater in dollar terms), and in the case of an all-out invasion it would probably use different tactics – launching attacks using air power, special forces and paratroopers, and electronic warfare, cutting a potential defence down to a period of weeks, Bielieskov estimated. In a worst-case scenario, Ukrainian military planners still may hope to raise the cost of an invasion, including the potential for urban and guerrilla warfare, to make it far less palatable for Moscow.

“It’s likely about making Russia pay the highest price using our regular forces and then starting this kind of campaign of resistance,” said Bielieskov.

Ukraine has turned its army into an effective force in Donbas, where it has had to invest considerable resources and would be best suited to hold the line against a larger Russian force.

But analysts say it would be put at a disadvantage if it had to turn to face an invading force on two fronts, potentially coming from Crimea and from the north, where Russia has established a base just 150 miles from the border with tanks, rocket artillery and even short-range ballistic missiles.

“The Russian military is in a very different place than it was in 2014-15,” said Kofman, noting a “tremendous level of modernisation”, training, combat experience, upgraded kit and the new deployment of tactical formations along the Ukrainian border, as well as expanded logistical capacity. “They’re not going to repeat the contest that they had.”

Moscow would probably seek a “short and sharp” conflict, Kofman said, avoiding a grinding war for territory and minimising the importance of Ukraine’s large operational reserves.

“Realistically, they’re still tremendously both outgunned and outnumbered,” he said.



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