Why Ukraine will endure

In this classic David vs. Goliath fight, Ukraine will endure against the powerful Russian bear…as long as they keep fighting.

In the early morning of 24 February, Moscow time, Russian land, air, and sea forces from Byelorussia, Crimea, and Donetsk attacked the Ukraine. Russia and the Ukraine were united with Kazakhstan other states in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Existing since the Bolsheviks overthrew Czar Nicholas II in 1917, the USSR defeated Germany on the eastern front in World War II, invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and stood against the Western World in the Cold War. The fall of the USSR in 1991 splintered the former allies and ushered in a political disaster for Russia.

In the war between Russia and the Ukraine, Russia possesses major advantages. Russia is the largest country in the world at 6.6 million square miles, about 1/8th of the world’s land mass, and has a population of 146 million. According to the 2022 military strength ranking from Global Firepower, Russia is behind only the United States in military power, having 1.35 million personnel, 4100 aircraft, and 605 naval vessels.[1] Its per capita gross domestic product is $11,300. Ukraine, by contrast, extends over 233,000 square miles and has a population of 44 million. According to the 2022 military strength ranking from Global Firepower, Ukraine ranks 23 out of 140 nations surveyed. It has 500,000 total military personnel, 318 aircraft, and 38 naval vessels.[2] Its per capita gross domestic product is $3,727.

If Russia has so many advantages, why will Ukraine endure?

Ukraine is fighting on interior lines.

Russian forces have to travel over a huge area to get from one location to another. If Ukrainians want to move forces from Kharkov to Kiev, they must traverse 301 miles. If Russians wish to move forces from Gomel (opposite Kiev) to Belgorod (opposite Kharkov), they must move 380 miles. Simple geography means that the Russians faces more troubles supplying and reinforcing their armies than the Ukraine does. The Ukrainians can also use the Dnieper River for north-south movement.

Ukraine is fighting a defensive war.

Defenders have the advantages of knowing the terrain, building fortifications and entrenchments, bore sighting weapons, and setting traps for their assailants. They possess structures such as buildings, have established communication and transportation systems, and can selectively destroy anything necessary to impede the enemy. Traditional military doctrine suggests that attackers need a five to one advantage in total combat power to overcome the inherent strengths of the defensive. The Russians do not have this, unless they use their nuclear arsenal.

Ukraine is stronger than it appears in many aspects of power.

Military and political planners evaluate diplomatic, informational, military, and economic power in what is called a DIME Analysis. In this conflict, while Russia holds the clear military advantage, Ukraine is stronger diplomatically, informationally, and economically due to support from other states. For example, though Ukraine’s economy is smaller than Russia’s, Ukraine has a virtually limitless stream of equipment, supplies, and money from Europe, the United States, and others. Russia is not likely to be able to interdict these resources, and enjoys only tepid support from China and a few other weak states.

Ukraine has long experience fighting Russia.

Since Putin annexed the region around Donetsk and the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Ukrainians have been fighting Russians. They know the capabilities of Russian equipment, training of Russian soldiers, and practices of their commanders. Ukraine has built its military power in ways that offset Russian superiority. For example, the Ukrainians cannot match the Kremlin in the air, but have installed a first-rate air defense system which is costing the Russian air force dearly. In another example, Russian ground forces lack equipment and training for night operations, a limitation which allows the Ukrainians to anticipate Russian moves.

Ukraine has only to survive, while Russia has to win.

Ukraine’s greatest asset is that it only has to keep fighting. Russia has to conquer cities, destroy armies, install a new government, and move many if not most of its forces back to Russia to deal with other threats in its vast territory. After the Germans conquered the Ukraine in 1941, the Ukrainians launched a deadly partisan war which hobbled Nazi power in the country. Even if Russia overran Ukraine, prolonged guerrilla war would deplete Russian power, sap Russian morale, and ensure eventual victory.

Conclusion

In the long run, and perhaps in the short run as well, Ukraine will endure. This is only true so long as the Ukrainian people resist. No number of physical advantages can ensure victory, or even survival, in a people who lack the will to fight. Napoleon said, “In war, the moral is to the physical and three is to one.” America won militarily in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but lost politically, because these wars should never have been fought in the first place. Russia will likewise discover that it erred in marching into the Ukraine and will bring its boys home. Sadly, there will be many fewer of them.

 

[1] 2022 Russia Military Strength, https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.php?country_id=russia.

[2] 2022 Ukraine Military Strength, https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.php?country_id=ukraine.

Author: MD Harris Family Institute

MD, MPH, MBA, MDiv, PhD, ThM Colonel, US Army (ret)

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