Main Image Credit A Ukrainian soldier in a trench near the line of separation from Russian-backed rebels in the Donetsk region, 5 February 2022. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo
The conventional military balance is stacked firmly against Ukraine, but the threat of unconventional resistance should concern Moscow.
Despite the imminent threat of invasion, the Ukrainian military projects an aura of calm confidence in its capabilities. Any assessment of Ukraine’s conventional forces makes this attitude difficult to understand. In the east of the country, Ukrainian units continue to improve their defensive fortifications to maintain the line of contact against Russian unconventional forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, even as scores of Russian conventional units mass on Ukraine’s southern and northern borders. But the Ukrainian military’s attitude makes more sense when one appreciates that it is not only the Army which the country depends upon for its deterrence.
Fixed and Overmatched
For the soldiers of Ukraine’s 95th Brigade, currently holding the line against Russian unconventional forces near the town of Toretsk, the crisis engulfing international diplomacy might as well concern a far-off land. The brigade is made up of Ukraine’s best troops, responsible for some of the most daring operations of the 2014–2015 struggle against Russia. Today the brigade is holding 20 km of frontage, disrupting infiltration of Ukrainian territory.
When we visited the brigade’s positions, its officers emphasised their civil-military cooperation activities to strengthen their relations with the local population. The attitude to the threat of escalation with Russia was straightforward: if Russia invades, they will fight to the last man. Given the number of Heroes of Ukraine serving in the formation, this is not mere bravado.
But an inspection of the brigade’s capabilities also reveals how overmatched Ukraine would be in a conventional war. The brigade’s assortment of RPG-7s, FAGOTs, SPG-9s and a few newer ATGMs do not pose a major risk to modernised Russian tanks. The brigade has some organic artillery, but fewer and shorter-ranged systems than those fielded by Russian units, while the formation has few systems for directing counter-battery fire.
The real challenge for Ukraine’s armed forces, however, lies at the operational level. Its air defences are woefully deficient in both quantity and quality. Once they are suppressed, Russia can secure air dominance and thereby punish any attempt by Ukrainian ground units to manoeuvre or concentrate. With the ongoing conflict in Donbas, many of Ukraine’s best troops – like the 95th – are fixed and could be cut off by an aggressive Russian assault. While they have ample ammunition, Ukraine’s units risk becoming isolated, unable to reposition under intense enemy air attack.
Ukrainian officials believe that they can protract the fighting to the point where Moscow will be denied anything but an embarrassing, messy and attritional struggle
The conventional imbalance is exacerbated by the number of axes along which Ukrainian forces would have to defend. Unlike Finland, where the available lines of advance are few and narrow, Russia can attack Ukraine along the entire length of its borders. For Ukrainian forces to commit to denying one axis would simply leave another avenue of advance undefended. Traditionally, this would encourage a country to maintain the majority of its forces as a mobile reserve, ready to counterattack – as Israel did from a similar position in 1967 and 1973. But such a tactic becomes impossible once the enemy has control of the sky.
A Struggle for National Survival
Despite the unfavourable military balance, Ukrainian officials are confident that they can deter Russia from a conventional invasion. This is not because they believe that they can defeat the Russian military. Instead, their confidence arises from a belief that they can protract the fighting to the point where Moscow will be denied anything but an embarrassing, messy and attritional struggle. Ukraine’s conventional military is but the first line in delivering this effect.
The Revolution of Dignity in 2014 saw a massive mobilisation of Ukrainian civil society. The networks that enabled the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych still exist, while in the subsequent eight years a distinctive sense of Ukrainian identity has permeated much more widely. Many of those who looked favourably on their Russian social connections have had their view of Moscow sour as their relatives and friends have died at the Kremlin’s hands. As a result, thousands of Ukrainians are taking to the woods at the weekends, training to use small arms and caching equipment and supplies.
The Ukrainian military has capitalised on this sentiment by establishing Territorial Defence Units. At present these formations are nascent, underequipped and have conducted little training to integrate into the wider defence plan. The structure will take time to mature. But in many respects the Ukrainian military is simply playing catch-up with what Ukrainian civil society is already getting on with.
The prospect of urban warfare is similarly seen as a check on Moscow’s aggression. During the fighting for Donetsk Airport in 2014–2015, Ukrainian units held off wave after wave of Russian attacks for 242 days. The fighting is held up as the standard to which Ukrainian soldiers should aspire. With citizens arming, and civil society building networks to turn every street hostile, the aim is to make Ukrainian towns and urban centres similarly challenging.
Whether in Chechnya, Syria or Donbas, Russia has never found urban fighting easy, while it will be hard for the Kremlin to present the levelling of cities as the liberation of a fellow people
Russia has the firepower to take such centres of resistance. But whether in Chechnya, Syria or Donbas, Russia has never found urban fighting easy, while it will be hard for the Kremlin to present the levelling of cities as the liberation of a fellow people. Forthcoming Ukrainian exercises seek to underscore how Russia will face a complicated and protracted struggle to control any territory that it seizes. For units like the 95th Brigade, which could theoretically find themselves deep in the Russian rear, the orders will be simple: keep killing as many Russians as possible, for as long as you can.
The will to resist cannot be taken for granted. Russia has plenty of agents in Ukrainian politics. There will be many advocates for surrender if the war escalates. Russia will similarly exploit any divisions that emerge within the Ukrainian political system. The response of a population to mass casualties is difficult to predict.
In consequence, the Ukrainian government has placed a disproportionate emphasis on trying to maintain social stability and confidence in Ukrainian institutions. This is also why – despite it making little military sense from a deterrence point of view – many of Ukraine’s foremost military formations will continue to be fixed in Donbas. The Russians can surge the size of their forces on the border year on year. Ukraine cannot afford to sacrifice the future integrity of the country to stave off an imminent threat. This is not only because it would allow Russia to achieve an incremental victory at a lower cost, but also because it would create fissures in Ukrainian society.
If Ukraine can deter the current threat and sustain the government’s legitimacy, then the prospects for national survival become increasingly bright. As the Territorial Defence force structure beds in, unconventional deterrence will expand. If international assistance can support this process, then over time, Ukraine should be able to remove the military option from Moscow altogether. Right now, however, Ukraine finds itself caught between the inevitability of a long war and the imminent threat of a short one. The longer the conflict, the more likely Ukraine is to survive.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare
Research Fellow, Land Warfare