Is Russia’s Military Really As Good As It Was in Crimea?

April 3, 2014
Ukrainian T-84 "Oplot" main battle tank | Army Recognition

Three to five days is all the Russian military would need to overrun Ukrainian resistance in the east and south of the country if the decision was made to invade. Within 12 hours of ordering an invasion, Russian troops described as: “a very large and very capable and very ready force” could be across the border and into Ukraine. These statements did not come from the summations of analysts or commentators, but the words of U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who is NATO’s top military commander and was recently ordered back to Europe from Washington D.C. where he was about to testify before Congress.

These statements come after Moscow’s public proclamations that it was withdrawing troops from the border. However, these troops turned out to only be a battalion sized unit (about 500 troops) who are based in Samara and most likely are the result of a unit rotation with conscripts coming to the end of their service, “Unfortunately I can’t confirm that Russia is withdrawing its troops,” said Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. “This is not what we have seen.”

Beyond the fact that significant numbers of Russian troops, 40,000 by most guesses, remain poised near Ukraine’s borders, they also have the differen types of units necessary for an invasion, along with the required logistical support (field hospitals, spare parts, food supplies). Those facts give significant pause to any belief in the public proclamations made by Russian officials that they have no designs on invading the rest of Ukraine.

“This is a very large, very well-equipped force to be called an exercise,” continued General Breedlove, and it is. The invasion and takeover of Crimea was a professional, well planned, and very well executed operation combining land, air and naval assets. Crimea showed that Putin’s massive modernizatsiia program designed to create a modern, advanced military has started to pay dividends. Crimea was a dramatic improvement from the Russian military’s lackluster performance in 2008 against Georgia where it suffered from severe shortcomings in both training and equipment to leadership. Not only were the individual soldiers and units very professional and well trained, the entire operation showed a level of high sophistication among the planning and command and control. It has demonstrated that Russia has very well equipped units and a resurgent military which is able to conduct highly professional local operations.

Yet the excitement over the Crimean invasion and the disproportionate strength of the Russian military versus Ukrainian capabilities needs to be put into context and qualified.

While the invasion of Crimea showed a high degree of professionalization, the units involved were also the best trained, equipped and staffed in the Russian military. They were most likely, as I’ve written before, airborne troops, elite Spetsnaz and naval infantry. All of those units are trained to a significantly higher standard (especially the airborne and Spetsnaz) than the average soldier. They are also commonly staffed by kontraktniki (professional soldiers) as opposed to conscripts that are required to serve a one-year tour of duty. Also, Russia is divided in to four districts (Western, Southern, Central and Eastern). The soldiers in Crimea, if they weren’t pulled from the airborne forces, also most likely came from the Southern military district, which covers the restive Caucasus along with bordering Georgia and encompassing the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This means that the Southern military district has been, and continues to be, the most likely source of conflict among all the military districts. As such, it receives priority for new equipment and manpower. The units in the district are usually kept at a higher level of staffing—usually around 80%–and generally have a larger proportion of kontraktniki.

What does all this mean?

It means that the troops involved in Crimea were Russia’s best. The best equipped, trained and motivated. They were designed to show the new face of Putin’s modern military, one that is able to operate at the highest standards and impress upon the West that the disastrous and embarrassing military failures of the 1990’s are a thing of the past.

As impressive as they were, they are not representative of the Russian armed forces as a whole. While Russia desires to maintain a “million man army,” the true numbers are probably closer to 750,000 across all services (especially due to demographic challenges). Russia has even relaxed recruitment standards for those from the violence plagued North Caucasus to increase manpower. It also means that the 750,000 troops are spread across Russia’s four military districts which cover the whole of Russia. That means that only a small proportion of troops are available for any conflict with Ukraine. And not all of the troops are nearly as good as those in Crimea who became front page celebrities across the globe. Unlike most of the troops that were involved in the Crimea campaign, most Russian soldiers are still conscripts, called up annually for a one year term of service. As conscripts, and only for one year, they are less professional and trained than their elite counterparts, especially since one year is hardly enough time to train an effective, modern soldier to today’s standards.

Unlike the Southern military district that has most of its units well-staffed, Russia still relies on a mass mobilization army—despite making significant effort to eliminate units that were staffed by a few officers and men in peacetime, and then staffed by conscripts mobilized in the event of a conflict. Most units are staffed far below the 80% threshold, more commonly to around 40-50%. That means it takes longer for these units to be staffed to a level that would make them combat ready.

Facing the larger and better equipped Russian army is a Ukrainian force that is feeling the effects of years of underfunding. It’s estimated that Ukraine spends around $12,000 dollars per serviceman, a fact noted by a U.S. Army report that placed it 127th out of 150 countries and placed its military “…on a starvation diet” (Russia spends about seven times as much per serviceman according to IHS Aerospace and Defense). The difference is even more drastic when looking at total spending on the military: Ukraine spent $1.6 billion in 2012, compared to Russia’s $78 billion. That is why the new government in Kiev was so desperate for funds that it started a campaign whereby Ukrainians could donate to support the military via their mobile phones. Yet this campaign was most likely meant to foster domestic support than actual monetary gains, and is why the new government pledged $610 million in emergency funding to support the military and the creation of a new national guard (the goal is to recruit 20,000 volunteers who will be put through a two week training course).

And yet despite the underfunding, the Ukrainian military is still far larger than the Georgian military the Russians faced in 2008, and has large amounts of equipment. Most of the equipment is in storage or in need of maintenance, but there are still enough tanks and armored units to pose a significant challenge to an invasion (especially Ukraine’s domestically produced T-84 “oplot” tank that is actually a decent design, though only a few are actually in service. Most of Ukraine’s tanks are modernized versions of the T-64).

Ukraine’s military also has an impressive sense of duty and esprit de corp. This was most prominently on display during the Crimea invasion when hopelessly-surrounded units displayed an impressive level of commitment and restraint in defying their Russian opponents.

While hazarding a guess on when and if conflicts are bound to start is a recipe for surprise, I would wager, along with far smarter analysts than myself, that the most likely time for an invasion was a week and a half ago. Ukraine has had time to mobilize both diplomatic support and rally its military to prepare for any further conflict. Yet, as Crimea surprised almost everyone, so could an invasion of the rest of Ukraine. In any event, it is clear that it would be no repeat of the 2008 war with Georgia. Ukraine would put up a fight, and in some cases would be more effective than most would suspect. However, it is also clear that Russia would have complete control of the skies and would eventually overrun any Ukrainian opposition.

Let’s hope the Kremlin has had its fill of adventurism and has turned its gaze to its pallid economy.