If it comes to war with Russia, does Ukraine stand a chance?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: So what could those Ukrainian troops in the eastern part of the country actually do? Especially with thousands of well-equipped and highly-skilled Russian troops sitting just on the other side of that border. The World's Chris Woolf has been digging into the military balance and Chris, tell us what you've found.

Chris Woolf: Well Marco, we can come to numbers and strategy in just a moment but first we should just recall what the ancient Greek historian Thucydides said, that war is a matter not so much of arms, as of money. Money is critical perhaps in this instance more than in any other because even though the Ukrainians are outnumbered by the Russians three to one in terms of population, the GDP of Russia is 11 or 12 times as much as Ukraine's and the amount that they spend on their military is at least 30 times as much as Ukraine, maybe as much as 60 times as much as Ukraine. That translates critically into all kinds of important things in the military balance, in terms of the modernness of the equipment, the readiness of the troops to act, simple numbers that you can call on.

Werman: If we just focus on that border area in eastern Ukraine where all the troops are amassed, how do the numbers actually stack up? If there was some kind of flare up, what would happen?

Woolf: It's obviously difficult to predict because you don't know what circumstances it's going to involve but the Ukrainian troops are outnumbered by the Russians, that's clear. It's okay to be outnumbered when you're on the defense, so it wouldn't be a pushover. The Ukrainian troops are there, they're well-equipped, but the problem is the vast scale of that border. It's a huge border. You don't have to think of it just in terms of the Russian-Ukrainian side of it. The Russians could probably have access via Bielorussia as well, given the alliance between those two countries. You could see the Russians pushing forward pretty easily.

Werman: Given how much the Russians have invested in military, I assume the technology and the materials they have to fight a war are better than the Ukrainians. How does that look?

Woolf: In terms of quality, absolutely. The Russians have invested in new, modern battle tanks. The Ukrainians have a big arms exporting industry but it's mostly soviet legacy equipment. They inherited a vast amount of equipment from the Soviets and that's what they've continued to make. They've tried to do some upgrades. Listeners should be careful when they see various military balances that have been posted online. Neither Russia nor Ukraine actually publish their complete military strengths, so it's a little bit of guesswork. But by the best estimate, Ukraine has about 10 modern battle tanks, T-84's that they've upgraded themselves. Most of the rest of the stuff that they have in service are T-64's. "64" indicates the year that it was patented, basically, so you're looking at tanks that are mostly 50 years old and they're vastly outnumbered.

Werman: Is there anything to say about the pro-Russian nationalists who are Ukrainian who might end up siding with Russia?

Woolf: That's one key thing that's not to be ruled out, especially in modern warfare. The kind of conflict you might see is that if Ukraine cannot mount a conventional defense, they could go toward a symmetric warfare and that's where the popular uprisings in an urban setting could become really complicated and difficult for even the modern Russian army.

Werman: You mention the flat, rolling plains, which leads me to my final question and that is if anybody's seen pictures of Ukraine, you know how flat it is. How does that actually play into any military equation? Is it a good thing or bad thing?

Woolf: It's a bad thing for a defender. Tanks can just roll pretty much anywhere they want and there isn't really much you can do to stop them. If you block a road, they'll just go around it. The one defensible line in Ukraine that kind of faces to the east is the Dnieper river but that's pretty much in the middle of the country so everything to the east and the south, and where the ethnic Russians live, which is to the east of that, so strategically they're in a bind. You could defend the Dnieper river and that's the place where you might make a stand, but you're going to lose everything that the Russians appear to want. Although obviously we shouldn't speculate at all of what's going on in the minds of the people in the Kremlin. There's no indication yet that there's going to be a war and there's really no need for it yet. This could yet be resolved.

Werman: In the minds of people in Kiev, does it look like there are some clear options?

Woolf: There are no good options. The one issue that we haven't mentioned, which could be critical in any conflict, are the gas pipelines that export Russia's gas into Europe. Ukraine could cut them off, which would hurt Russia, but it would also hurt the Ukrainians badly. That's their only G2. Of course, the Russians could turn off the pipelines and deny Ukraine its energy and also put huge pressure on Western Europe to just play ball and put pressure on Ukraine to come to a peaceful resolution. That opens up a whole new can of worms in terms of international assistance because that could present an infinite number of variables about how any conflict might play out.

Werman: The World's Chris Woolf, thanks very much.

Woolf: You're welcome, Marco.