Explainer: Does the Ukrainian military stand a chance against Putin's invasion?

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Russian forces have faced stiffer-than-expected resistance in their attack on Ukraine, according to a Pentagon official briefing reporters on Friday. The advance toward Kyiv, ordered by President Vladimir Putin, “is going slower than the Russians would have had anticipated it going,” a Pentagon official told the New York Times. Tempering that assessment, however, there were also reports from Ukraine on Friday evening that Russian troops have reached the outskirts of Kyiv, where large explosions could be seen and heard in the night sky.

The attack itself had been predicted by U.S. intelligence analysts, but the sight of tanks rolling across the borders of one European country into another has left world leaders scrambling for a response. Already, leaders in the U.K and the United States have imposed strict sanctions against the Russian government, its economy and members of Putin's inner circle. And on Thursday, President Biden promised that the United States would continue to support Ukraine militarily, saying, "We're united in our support of Ukraine. We are united in our opposition to Russian aggression. And we are united in our resolve to defend our NATO alliance. And we're united in our understanding of the urgency and seriousness of the threat Russia is making to global peace and stability.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared confident on Thursday when he introduced martial law across the country, reassuring civilians that the “army is working.” But many wonder if the sanctions are too little, too late to thwart Putin's massive attack. The question now is whether Ukrainian forces have anything like the military equipment or prowess necessary to turn back the Russian attackers or even hold them at bay.

Since 2014, when Putin seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine without firing a shot, the Ukrainian military has clawed its way back, fighting separatists and putting a stop to hostilities in eastern regions. From 2014 to 2020, Ukraine went from allocating 1.5 percent of gross domestic product on military expenditure to 4.1 percent of GDP, according to World Bank figures.

Military experts estimate that the number of Russian troops that amassed on the Ukrainian border before the invasion was 190,000. That is just a small percentage of the 900,000 soldiers Russia has in its combined armed forces, compared with the 361,000 active soldiers in Ukraine. But this has massively grown since last June, when it was reported by the U.S. Congressional Research Service that Ukraine had increased its combat-ready soldiers from 6,000 to 150,000. Most male adults in Ukraine have at least basic military training.

As for reserves, Russia's resources are more than double those of Ukraine, with 2 million to Ukraine’s 900,000. In relation to weaponry, Putin has 2,840 battle tanks, which outnumber those of its neighbor by more than 3 to 1, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. As for military aircraft, Ukraine has 200 attack aircraft, including helicopters, and two warships while Russia has at least 1,300 aircraft, 34 warships and 50 submarines.

Ukrainian servicemen, in tanks, get ready to repel an attack.
Ukrainian servicemen get ready to repel an attack in Ukraine's Luhansk region on Thursday. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia has the fourth-largest military in the world and has the largest stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear weapons. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, it has an estimated 6,257 nuclear warheads. The country inherited approximately 35,000 nuclear weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union. “As for military affairs, even after the dissolution of the USSR and losing a considerable part of its capabilities, today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states,” Putin warned ahead of Thursday’s invasion. “Moreover, it has a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons. In this context, there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.” Another 977 strategic warheads and 1,912 nonstrategic warheads are in Russia’s reserve, the NTI reported.

Ukraine inherited a large number of nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but denuclearized under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Also under Russia’s belt is a biological warfare program that was launched in 1928. With regard to chemical weapons, Russia announced the complete destruction of its stockpile in 2017, after possessing the world’s largest chemical weapons during the Cold War. However, in recent years it was accused of developing a new class of nerve agents, called Novichok, and using them in the U.K. in the 2018 attempted assassination of a former Russian military intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia.

On whether Ukraine could have a fighting chance against the Russian army, Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute told the BBC: "I think the Ukrainians are in a very difficult position." But in recent years, Ukraine has made progress in modernizing its army. "There has been enormous progress in terms of training and preparation for combat," Gustav Gressel, a specialist in Russian military issues at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told France 24. Gressel went on to say that one of the main weaknesses of the Ukrainian armed forces is that its military doctrines were developed during the Soviet era, and so “Moscow knew perfectly well what to expect and could prepare itself accordingly.” Ukraine still reportedly relies heavily on Soviet-era tanks, planes and armored cars.

Another asset for the Ukrainian army is that it is a young force. "Most of them enlisted in 2014-15,” Glen Grant, a senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation who has worked in Ukraine on the country's military reform, told France 24. “So it's a voluntary act to defend the homeland, which means they are highly motivated and have high morale.”

A convoy of Russian military vehicles with headlights on stretches into the distance.
A convoy of Russian military vehicles moves toward the border in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on Wednesday. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Ukraine is not facing Russia alone. Western countries have increased arms deliveries to Ukraine, although Kyiv has said it is in need of more. In November, the U.S. delivered 88 tons of ammunition as part of a military aid package that was worth $60 million. The U.K. supplied Ukraine with 2,000 short-range antitank missiles in January and sent specialists to deliver the training. Germany ruled out arms deliveries but said it would co-finance a $6 million field hospital. The Czech Republic said it has plans to donate ammunition. Estonia said it was sending Javelin anti-armor missiles, and Latvia and Lithuania said they were providing Stinger missiles. It remains to be seen whether this is enough to protect Ukraine and its people from Russia.

Where are Russian forces surrounding Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.