MIG-29 fighters


An uneasy ceasefire in eastern Ukraine continues with regular shelling. Russian military jets test Swedish, Finnish, Baltic, and American airspace. That may have been a Russian submarine in the Swedish archipelago, but it seems to have gotten away.

What will Vladimir Putin do next? He has bragged that Russia could be in Kiev, Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, and Bucharest in two days.

An equally important question is What can Vladimir Putin do next? A threat is made up of intent, which Russia seems to be showing plenty of, and capability, which is not much addressed in the news.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) publishes a yearly assessment “of global military capabilities and defence economics.” Here is a summary of Russia’s military capabilities from the 2014 report.

Total Active 845,000
Army 250,000
Airborne 35,000
Navy 130,000
Strategic Deterrent Forces 80,000
Command and Support 200,000
Paramilitary 519,000
Reserve 2,000,000


“Paramilitary” includes

Federal Border Guard Service 160,000
Federal Agency for Special Construction 50,000
Federal Communications and Information Agency 55,000
Federal Protection Service 10,000 – 30,000
Interior Troops 170,000
Railway Troops 50,000


The number of Russian troops currently outside eastern Ukraine is 30,000 – 40,000. Earlier in October, Putin announced a troop withdrawal of around 17,000. The timing coincides with the rotation of draftees whose service lasts a year, after which they are in the reserves, so this may not be a real change in those numbers.

How many Russian troops would it take to invade and occupy Ukraine?

Russia fought a war in Chechnya from 1999 through 2009. It began that war with 80,000 Russian troops against groups numbering 22,000 – 30,000. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was with 380,000 troops, against 375,000 in the Iraqi army.

The Ukrainian military has a total of 129,950 troops, 64,750 of them in the army (IISS).

For comparison, Iraq covers an area of 438,317 square kilometers, wit a population of 32,585,692. Ukraine covers an area of 603,550 square kilometers, with a population of 44,291,413. Estimates are hard to find on the internet, but it would seem that an invasion of Ukraine would require at least the equivalent of what went into Iraq in 2003. That is a number larger than the current Russian army.

As we saw in Iraq, holding a country is likely to require even more troops. Ukraine, like other countries in eastern Europe, continued partisan war against the Soviets after World War II. I have no doubt that stores of ammunition and food have been placed in areas that were used then.

Troop strength is not the whole story, but it is indicative. Armored vehicles, tanks, artillery, ammunition, drones, other weapons, and morale all play a part. A simple matchup of the Ukrainian and Russian armies would easily go to the Russians. But that is unlikely to happen.

The Russian military addresses numerous threats: Europe and NATO in the west, China and the United States in the east, unrest in the Caucasus, added to which is a desire to expand into the Arctic. The Strategic Deterrent Forces (80,000) operate ICBM-carrying submarines and the land forces associated with nuclear missiles. These forces must remain in place.

An invasion and occupation of Ukraine would require that troops be brought in from other regions and reserves perhaps be called up. The IISS report notes that Russia has had difficulty meeting its military recruiting goals. Each year’s draftees must be trained and rotated. Some protests have already surfaced in response to deaths from Russian operations in Ukraine.

Add to that “being in” Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, and Bucharest in two days. The first three are closer to the Russian border than Kiev is, and the first two are accessible by sea. Invading and occupying troops would need supply lines. Hard to see these being done with fewer than 50,000 troops. Warsaw and Bucharest are further, in larger countries: 100,000 troops. Airpower could bomb those cities. A small nuke on Tallinn could destroy the lovely medieval Old Town, the business district, and the Russian speakers in the Lasnamäe high-rises. The fallout would drift toward St. Petersburg.

There would, of course, be international reaction to any of these moves, which Moscow must include in its calculations.

And then there is the economic aspect. Russia is already close to recession. Wars require money.

A desperate or determined national leader could ignore all this. Russia could invade Ukraine. But that would further weaken Russia’s military and economy, as well as set up large-scale continuing unrest on Russia’s border.

What is more likely is that we will see continued bloody and devastating Russian-promoted unrest in eastern Ukraine, harassment of American diplomats in Moscow, provocative Russian military actions around the Baltic Sea and other places. So far, Putin prefers Russia’s military actions to be masked, which eliminates the possibility of large-scale invasions. His verbal threats and aerial provocations are intended to unsettle his neighbors and the world community, magnifying perceptions of Russia’s power. But the numbers aren’t there.

Update (November 5, 2014): Russian analysts say that an offensive in Ukraine would cost Russia more casualties than did the Soviet offensive in Afghanistan.

Update (February 9, 2015): More about Russia’s troop strength. Consistent with the above.


Photo: MIG-29 fighter jets from Ria Novosti.


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