How Ukraine's Military Compares to Russia's Border Forces

Any potential conflict between Ukraine and Russia is often presented as David versus Goliath, but many commentators often neglect to mention that in the Biblical story of mismatched rivals, it was the underdog who came out on top.

On the frontline, Ukrainian soldiers sit inside upgraded, Soviet-era T-64 tanks that can strike 2.5 miles away.

Across the border, Russians sit in T-80, T-72 and T-90 tanks boasting thermal imaging and missiles that can devastate targets about 4 miles away.

Kyiv's forces are better equipped in taking on a bigger opponent than in 2014 when Moscow last invaded; however, Russia's military has also evolved.

Military analysts outline the situation to Newsweek...

Ukraine, Russia's Armies

Since the seizure of Crimea nearly eight years ago, Kyiv has made major military reforms, helped in part by the equivalent of $14 billion in military aid from NATO.

The U.S. has been the main provider, giving: radio equipment, military transport trucks and more than 200 Javelin man-portable anti-tank missiles. Last year, there was a transfer of $650 million worth of weapons to Ukraine, $200 million of it in December 2021.

Ukraine also increased its defense spending from 1.5 percent of GDP in 2014 to over 4 percent in 2020, an outlay which would be the envy of those in the NATO alliance it wants membership of—a prospect the Kremlin wants to prevent.

In that time, Ukraine's army increased 25-fold—from 6,000 combat-ready troops to about 150,000, according to a June report for the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces
Civilian participants in a Kyiv Territorial Defence unit train on a Saturday in a forest on January 22, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The country's military has improved a lot since Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014. Sean Gallup/Getty

Many enlisted after Crimea's annexation, are highly motivated to defend their homeland and have experience of the drawn out hostilities with Russian-backed troops in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, the focus of any prospective incursion.

"If it comes down to an infantry close battle or a tank battle, I would grade the Ukrainians considerably better than the Russians," said Glen Grant, a senior defence expert at the Baltic Security Foundation who has advised Ukraine on its military reform.

"Russia may be better overall in maneuver, that doesn't mean to say they will get it right," he told Newsweek.

Western officials estimate Russia has amassed about 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border—Ukrainian officials estimated as many as 127,000, including some 21,000 air and sea personnel.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon said 8,500 troops have been placed on higher alert to potentially deploy to Europe as part of a NATO "response force."

But it still leaves a vast imbalance, as this graphic provided by Statista, shows.

Graph shows Russia-Ukraine military imbalance
Graphic shows the imbalance of military power between Russia and Ukraine Newsweek/Statista
Russian soldier fires a rifle on exercises
Russian military troops take part in a military drill on Sernovodsky polygon close to the Chechnya border, some 260 km from south Russian city of Stavropol, on March 19, 2015. About 500 soldiers take part in the military exercises until March 20. SERGEY VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Analyst Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank said that in the Donbas region, both the Russians and the Ukrainians have roughly 30,000 men each. Russia could form at least 20 battalion tactical groups (BTG) from the forces based there.

Russian forces have around 60 BTGs around all of Ukraine, and has sent in at least another 10 into Belarus for exercises.

"If we count airborne forces which can be called in quickly, that would add at least another six if not more to Russia," Gressel said, taking Russia's complement to around 100 BTGs. "That is more than three times as large as the NATO response force."

"It is a sizable force you need to overcome. That said, there are plenty of Ukrainian forces out there and they are a force to be reckoned with."

Meanwhile, Grant said in the Donbas region, any conflict would "be a hard fight, the Ukrainians won't give an inch."

"All those Ukrainians are soldiers who signed a contract since the war started, therefore they know what they are up against, they know what they are doing," Grant added.

Yet the main issue for Ukraine is not on the ground.

Ukraine, Russia Air Forces

"The problem is air superiority," said Gressel.

In this area, the Russians will use a fighter force of Sukhoi Su-27s and Mikoyan MiG-28s, and will rely on Sukhoi Su-35s and Su-34s which would carry out strikes against high value targets command posts, political centers and ammunition depots, Gressel said.

On the other hand, with its aging bombers and fighter jets, and pilots' lack of flying-hours, Ukraine's air force is its weak point.

Ukraine currently operates nearly 125 combat-capable aircraft, according to Military Balance analysis.

These include fighter jets Su‑27 and MiG‑29 while the newest fighter jet in the Ukrainian army was built 30 years ago, the Kyiv Post newspaper reports.

Kyiv needs help on everything from radars to anti-aircraft missiles to command and control, Alexander Gray, ex-National Security Council's chief of staff during the Trump administration, told Foreign Policy.

Meanwhile, Russia is likely to use S-400 air defense batteries to complement its advance, creating no-go zones for Ukrainian air power, Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO told the magazine.

Russian servicemen
Russian servicemen in Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) member states military drills in Balykchi, Kyrgyzstan, on September 9, 2021. Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops by its border with Ukraine. VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/Getty

Kyiv said that Russia has also transferred more Iskander operational-tactical missiles to the border, which can reach much of Ukraine. Moscow could use missiles to knock out Ukraine's runways, airports, and fighters on the ground, Foreign Policy reported.

However, Ukraine has purchased from Turkey its renowned Bayraktar TB2 drones, which had been used in Libya and Syria and Kyiv's possession of them has "raised alarms in Moscow," the Washington Post reported.

Ukraine-Russia Tactics

But software as well as hardware would also play a role. Lt Col Tyson Wetzel, a senior Air Force fellow at the Atlantic Council, told a web seminar a major threat towards Kyiv that will start with a very large cyber attack to "create a crisis that threatens the ruling government's legitimacy."

As well as an invasion or beef up of its presence in the Donbas, he said Tuesday Russian troops could push north from Crimea and then swing to the west towards Odessa.

"They do not have the force right now to take and hold the country," he said, "I think they can take and hold small areas for a political objective."

Whatever leaps Ukraine has made since 2014, the Russia military has also evolved and gained military experience from seven years of fighting in the Donbass and also Syria. Now this Russian-held enclave is being reinforced heavily by Russian ammunition, equipment and mercenaries.

"The Ukrainian side has tanks and armored personnel carriers and on the Russian side, tanks, personnel carriers and probably a lot more artillery and rocket launchers. So they (the Russians) will be looking to devastate one or two areas, is my guess," Grant said.

"It may well be that Russia intends to hit the Ukrainian forces hard in order to hold them there so that they can't be taken out and used somewhere else," he added.

"If Russia manages to get troops behind the Donbas front line and encircle it and cut it off, then it is a pretty serious military and political failure."

A composite of Russian and Ukrainian military.
(L) A Ukrainian soldier with the 56th Brigade, in a trench on the frontline on January 18, 2022 in Pisky, Ukraine, and (inset) another Ukrainian soldier sits at a tank type T-64BM prior the exercise Strong Europe Tank Challenge 2017 near Eschenbach, southern Germany, on May 12, 2017. (R) A Russian soldier takes part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region in southern Russia, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021, and (inset) Russian Sukhoi SU-35S air defence fighters and Mikoyan MIG-29 jet fighters aircrafts at an air show during the MAKS-2021 International Aviation and Space Salon, on July 20, 2021, in Zhukovskiy.

Update 01/26/22, 9:46 a.m. ET: A Statista graphic has been added to this article.

Correction 01/29/22, 11:15 a.m. ET: The article has been updated to correctly attribute a quote in paragraphs 26 and 27 to Glen Grant. A misspelling of Gustav Gressel's surname in the article has also been corrected.