How Do the Militaries of Russia and Ukraine Stack Up?

In Brief

How Do the Militaries of Russia and Ukraine Stack Up?

Russia’s extraordinary show of force in and around Ukraine underscores the military imbalance between the two countries. 

How big is Russia’s military buildup?

Russia is mobilizing a massive combat force near its border with Ukraine that includes tanks, artillery, rockets, and other heavy weaponry. It is also reportedly moving naval assets into the region to bolster its fleet in the Black Sea. Although the exact number and locations of Russian units are not clear given open source data collection limitations, experts say these deployments are extraordinary and mark a worrying escalation of the country's ongoing conflict with Ukraine.

According to data from Rochan Consulting, there are about sixty thousand Russian military personnel positioned along the border with Ukraine, in Russia-annexed Crimea, and in Belarus, where they ostensibly entered for joint military exercises set for mid-February. However, various Western media citing official and nonofficial sources have said Russia has marshaled between 100,000 and 130,000 forces, likely including additional air, naval, and paratrooper personnel. It’s unclear if and how many Russian regular forces are in Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region aiding the tens of thousands of separatists; Russia continues to deny any involvement there.

How does Russia’s military compare to Ukraine’s?

Russia’s military is far superior. Defense analysts say this gives Russia a range of options if it decides to escalate further, such as bolstering separatists fighting in the Donbas to a full-fledged assault aimed at seizing all of Ukraine.

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The countries’ success or failure on the battlefield would be influenced by many factors. These include but are not limited to: the quality of the militaries’ training and leadership, their logistical and technical support, international aid, their morale, the level of civilian resistance, weather, and terrain. Moreover, many of these elements would likely change throughout the conflict. For instance, experts say that Russia’s military advantage would diminish if its offensive were to drag on for an extended period and develop into a grinding insurgency with Ukrainian forces.

Many defense experts note that Russia has undertaken a remarkable modernization effort since its war with Georgia in 2008, one that has transformed its Soviet-era force into an increasingly well-equipped and well-organized military. Additionally, its members have gained considerable combat experience in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

How much do Russia and Ukraine spend on their militaries?

Ukraine has increased its military budget significantly since 2014. But even with that boost and the significant financial support of the United States and other allies, Ukraine is still vastly outspent by Russia. The great financial resources required to sustain Russia’s recent mobilization around Ukraine is illustrative of the wide disparity between the two countries’ military capabilities.

Michael Bricknell contributed to the graphics for this In Brief.

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