No Basis for Russian Optimism about a Quick Military Victory in Ukraine, Moscow Expert Says

April 3, 2014
A Russian tank rolls outside a former Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean capital Simferopol, on March 27, 2014 (AFP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)

Staunton, April 3 – Many Russians and some in the West believe that the Russian military could overrun Ukraine because of its superiority over Ukrainian forces, but such views ignore both the enormous challenges that any occupier of Ukraine would face and the reality that the Ukrainian military is in fact a far more serious opponent than many believe.

Last week, Rashit Akhmetov, the editor of Zvezda Povolzha, pointed out that the Russian military may have enough forces on the border of Ukraine to seize the southeastern portions of Ukraine and perhaps more, but these forces are far from sufficient to allow Moscow to hold and pacify that enormous territory.

According to Akhmetov, the experience of World War II strongly suggests that the Russian Federation would need at least 500,000 troops to pacify that portion of Ukraine, a number that is at least 12 times as large as the number of soldiers now on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

Indeed, Moscow might need far more troops than that, the Kazan editor suggests, because any such invasion would isolate Russia, spark a partisan war against Russian forces, and place new burdens on the Russian economy at home while creating a situation in which “China could use the opportunity to seize two million square kilometers of territory in Siberia.”

This week, Aleksey Roshchin, a Moscow commentator, argues the other half of this equation and says that the prevailing view in Russia, that the Ukrainian army is so weak relative to the Russian one that a victory over it would be both quick and easy, is at the very least problematic and quite possibly dangerously wrong.

Russian attitudes about the potential for a quick victory over Ukraine resemble “the unrestrained” but ultimately unjustified optimism Russians had about a quick victory over Germany in 1914, an immediate triumph over Hitler in 1941, and a painless and quick defeat of Chechnya in 1994, Roshchin says.

Indeed, Russian popular enthusiasm for such a cakewalk now over Ukraine has grown to the point that people are asking why Putin has been so slow in acting. “What is he waiting for?” they are inquiring. Now, “the most moderate” say that Moscow can stop after it takes Kyiv, while the “boldest” talk about extending Russian control to Lviv and Uzhgorod.

Anyone who tries to suggest that the Russian army might face resistance from the Ukrainian one is dismissed with the query “What army” are you talking about because among Russians it is “well known” that there are “no more than 6,000” Ukrainian soldiers and that they “will not fight but immediately come over to the side of Russia!”

None of those expressing such optimism, of course, expect that they or their family members will have to fight. “People are certain,” Roshchin says, “that the victorious Russian army will win ‘on its own’” because it is fired by patriotism, well-armed and well-led, and faces an entirely inadequate opponent who “lacks any will for resistance.”

The “most surprising” thing about such views, of course, is that those who are now praising the Russian army to the skies and dismissing the Ukrainian military are “the very same people who just three months ago were angrily shaking their fists and expressing enormous anger at” the Russian defense minister for supposedly destroying the Russian army.

How can people think both of these things at the same time, Roshchin asks. Could it be that the Russian army of three months ago has been transformed? Not likely, he suggests. And if the Russian military was as degraded as many said then, “what is the basis for thinking that it will have a victorious march through a humbled Ukraine?”

It is striking, the commentator says, how rapidly and radically public opinion in Russia “can shift from one side to the other.”

What is taking place just now, Roshchin suggests, is what Freud called “displacement.” Russians are ascribing to the Ukrainian army all the problems they had been talking about in their own national military but are forgetting what that means for any adequate assessment of how any conflict between the two would play out.

It is almost certain that the problems Russians saw in their own army are also present in the Ukrainian one: weak commanders, poorly equipped soldiers, and widespread shortages. Indeed, “it is completely possible that all post-Soviet militaries” have these problems and that “the Ukrainian and Russian armies must be similar because we are after all fraternal peoples.”

But if this is the case, then “it in no way follows that the Russian army in a conflict with the Ukrainian one will have a cakewalk. In such circumstances, everything else being equal, the outcome will be decided by the level of motivation of the soldiers and of junior commanders,” Roshchin says.

Because he apparently believes that at least some in the Kremlin understand this, the Moscow analyst says that he “strongly doubts” that the Russian army will intervene in Ukraine. “Not one of us is ready for a real war.” They’d be happy with “a victory march,” but that is not the most likely outcome Moscow and the Russians would face.