One needs to look no further than the Revolutionary War to understand that those with the most firepower do not always win. But having the military advantage does carry with it many benefits. And, more often than not, conflicts are settled by sheer military might. Viewing the Russian invasion of Ukraine from this perspective reveals just how difficult it will be for the young nation to overcome its longtime aggressor.
The Bully in the Playground
When the Bear began poking Ukraine, Vladimir Putin recognized his overwhelming advantage. Lining up his men and tanks along the north, east, and south of Ukraine, Putin’s forces represent the bully in the playground. Ukraine spends $5.4 billion on its military; Russia counters $61.7 billion. As for active personnel, Ukrainian forces number 255,000 against Russia’s 1.154 million.
If one believes “he who controls the air controls the conflict,” then Putin has the upper hand there as well – and by a large margin. Volodymyr Zelensky’s air forces number 326, of which only 70 are fighter aircraft and 129 are helicopters.* Compare that to Putin’s air force, which boasts 5,552 total aircraft and 792 fighter jets – essentially ten times the size of Ukraine’s – and you are staring at a potential slaughter.
This graphic put together by the International Institute for Strategic Studies shows just how lopsided the conflict is:
Ukraine’s President Zelensky does have almost a million reservists, including paramilitary militias, though it’s unclear how well equipped the less official groups are. Images circulating of civilians training in combat drills with wooden cutout rifles certainly don’t bode well. Still, Russia doubles even that, with two million in reserve. To make matters worse, “Kyiv’s anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense systems are lacking, according to experts,” reports Reuters.
Ukraine is better equipped to fend off the invasion than Crimea was when Russia overran it almost a decade ago, however, as it has been the recipient of U.S. military largesse to the tune of $2.5 billion. As well, the Breadbasket of Europe was given military supplies and aid from Estonia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, according to Fox News.
In contemporary terms, Ukraine has only been a sovereign nation since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. This young country is the second-largest nation in Europe by landmass. If conquered, it would represent a jewel in the crown of Russia not merely for its size but also for its strategic value as a military buffer zone to enhance Moscow’s sense of security. It also represents a reunification of the motherland that Mr. Putin knew and revered as a child.
In a head-to-head military conflict, Ukraine is the David to Russia’s Goliath. Thus, the question becomes how long Ukraine can hold out before waving the flag of surrender? But another query that follows is even more harrowing: Who is next?
Senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Gustav Gressel, put it succinctly: “If Russia’s coercive strategy works well, there is no guarantee that it will stop with Ukraine.” Such as it is, Kyiv has a gun to its head, and Putin has put his finger on the trigger.
~ Read more from Leesa K. Donner.