Russia and Ukraine: Not the Military Balance You Think


Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov, eds. Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine (East View Press, 2014).


Over the last few months, the crisis in Ukraine has led to a fundamental reassessment of the state of U.S.-Russia relations. The crisis began with Russia’s almost completely non-violent military takeover of Crimea in February-March 2014. A new English-language volume edited by Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov highlights the causes and nature of the conflict in Crimea, as well as provides some lessons for both Ukraine and other states that might be subject to Russian aggression in the future.

This volume provides balanced and comprehensive coverage of virtually all military aspects of the conflict in Crimea, including both Russian and Ukrainian points of view. The experts from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) are some of the top Russian military analysts and the quality of their research and understanding of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries is clear in the writing.

The book begins with a short chapter by Vasily Kashin describing the backstory of the territorial dispute over Crimea. Although it starts with the conquest of the region by Catherine the Great back in the 18th century and mentions more familiar arguments related to the legitimacy of the region’s transfer from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, the main focus is on events after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Kashin highlights tensions over Crimea’s status within Ukraine throughout the 1990s, the role played by former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in promoting pro-Russian separatism in Crimea in the 1990s and 2000s, and the contentious negotiations over the division and subsequent status of the Black Sea Fleet and its base in Sevastopol. His key insight is that “the Russian government took no serious measures to support separatist movements in Crimea” prior to its invasion of the peninsula last February. This illustrates that Russian actions during the crisis were not the culmination of a plan to dismember Ukraine, but a reaction to the perceived security threat coming from the Maidan protests that culminated in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government.

Several chapters review the state of the Ukrainian and Russian military forces prior to the start of the conflict. The two chapters on Ukraine are particularly useful, as relatively little has been written in English on the post-Soviet development of its military. The authors show that during the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited what was, on paper, an extremely powerful military, with weapons systems that on average were more advanced and newer than those allotted to the Russian military. The only significant gap in these chapters is an assessment of Ukraine’s defense industry, and particularly of its connections to Russia’s defense industry. Such an assessment would have been helpful in spelling out Ukraine’s ability to modernize its military equipment and in showing the impact of the end of defense cooperation between the two countries on Russian military modernization programs.

At the time of its creation, the Ukrainian military was considered the fourth most powerful conventional military force in the world, behind only the United States, Russia, and China. However, these forces were allowed to atrophy throughout the post-Soviet period, with virtually no funding provided for the maintenance of equipment or troop training. Reforms were not carried out and there were no attempts at rearmament to replace aging Soviet equipment. As a result, by 2010 only 6,000 ground forces troops were being maintained in a state of constant combat readiness, while all other units would require at least a partial mobilization before being ready for battle. The air force was in a similar state of disarray, with only 31 fighters, 10 bombers, and eight ground attack aircraft considered operational. Even the pilots in these squadrons lacked adequate training. Overall, only 15 percent of all aircraft and helicopters were considered combat ready, and even these often lacked adequately trained crews. With a few exceptions, Navy ships rarely left port. Only four were considered combat ready. Air defense systems were unprepared, in part because of a ban on live exercises that was instituted in the aftermath of the accidental downing of a civilian aircraft during a 2001 exercise.

Furthermore, the lack of military reform meant that Ukrainian forces were still based on the western side of the country, where they had been positioned in the Cold War period to defend against the NATO threat. Eastern Ukraine had almost no military presence, as no threat was expected from that direction. There was also little to no coordination among services and the partial transition to professional service from a conscripted force had undermined the unified culture of the military by promoting regional identities. Overall, the book makes clear that the Ukrainian military was not prepared for a serious conflict and did not contemplate the possibility of hostilities with Russia.

The corresponding chapters on the Russian military discuss the various efforts to reform the military in the post-Soviet period, highlighting the largely unsuccessful nature of these attempts until the Serdyukov reform that was launched in 2009. In fact, the chapter on Russian military reform prior to the Georgian conflict shows that the decline of the Russian military largely paralleled that of the Ukrainian military until the late 2000s. There was a little more funding, to be sure, which allowed for more capabilities to be preserved through better maintenance and slightly more training. And Russia’s strategic nuclear component continued to receive preferential treatment and higher levels of funding even at the worst of economic times. But both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries were dependent on outdated mobilization schemes that were impractical outside of a dictatorial system. In both services, low pay and poor living conditions discouraged potential recruits from signing up as professional soldiers, while demographic decline and draft avoidance had a negative effect on conscription rates. As a result, both militaries were seriously understaffed, with few units at anything approaching full manning levels.

Mikhail Barabanov, the author of the chapters on Russian military reform, highlights the importance of the Serdyukov reform in creating a more effective Russian military over the last five years. He shows that most of the Russian military’s problems stemmed from its effort to maintain two armies at the same time – the traditional mobilization army and a constant readiness rapid response force – while barely having enough money for one. The key aspects of the Serdyukov reform have been described in numerous publications and do not need to be reprised here. The book summarizes them quite effectively, discussing both the successes and failures of the effort. Oddly, though, while Barabanov views the reform as quite successful overall, every aspect of the reform that he discusses at any length is shown to have largely failed. This leaves the reader wondering how it is possible that a reform that was mostly unsuccessful in achieving any of its specific goals resulted in such an increase in military effectiveness. In reality, several aspects of the reform have been remarkably successful, including the elimination of mass mobilization as the core concept of the military structure, the shift to mobile brigades, and increased training. Other aspects, such as streamlining command and control and improving joint operations among services, are still a work in progress. Finally, the reform did effectively fail in a few areas, especially in manpower and improving the education system. The Russian military today continues to be divided into a less effective set of regular units, many with vacant billets and older equipment, and a smaller number of permanent readiness units that have been first in line for new weapons and are largely staffed by professional soldiers who train regularly under a variety of conditions.

It is these latter units that comprised the force that invaded and occupied Crimea in late February and March 2014. The key chapter of the book, written by Anton Lavrov, details the Crimea operation. Lavrov shows that preparations for the attack began immediately after Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv on February 21, with the first unit of the newly established Special Operations Forces organization conducting operations on that day, and airborne troops leaving their base shortly thereafter. Lavrov argues that Russian forces worked together, from the start, with sympathetic civilians and local paramilitary (former Berkut) forces to take power in the region and prevent Ukrainian forces from restoring control over key government facilities or introducing reinforcements from outside the region. He highlights that the Crimean operation employed Russian troops from the outset. Snap military exercises conducted by regular Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border provided cover for the actual military operation taking place in Crimea. The initial Russian force in the region was quite small, with several thousand airborne and spetsnaz troops deployed to Crimea in the invasion’s initial phase. A task force from the recently established Special Operations Forces was involved in the takeover of the Crimean parliament on February 27. Additional troops were brought into Crimea from Russia the next day.

Lavrov emphasizes that Russian troops were stretched very thin during the first week of the invasion. In his analysis, Russian troops were not strong enough to prevail in an armed conflict against Ukrainian forces stationed in Crimea for the first week after the conflict began. They remained vulnerable to a Ukrainian counterattack until March 13 when Russian motor rifle forces, equipped with heavy weapons, entered Crimea and reinforced the troops guarding the isthmus connecting Crimea to the mainland. The success of the operation in its early stages thus depended on ambiguity and Ukrainian reluctance to use armed force against troops that portrayed themselves as local militia, rather than a foreign invading force.

The final chapter, by Vyacheslav Tseluyko, discusses how Ukraine can rebuild its armed forces to deal with the threat of a future full-scale Russian invasion. Given Ukraine’s limited resources, he suggests that it should prioritize combat training and repairing and upgrading existing weaponry, rather than purchasing new hardware. It also needs to greatly reduce noncombatant positions, reinstitute the draft, and reform the Navy to focus on a coastal defense mission. In terms of strategy, Tseluyko calls for a defensive posture that focuses on protecting large population centers. This would entail preparing for urban warfare and stationing long-range defensive MLR and SAM missile systems in urban areas, combined with creating guerrilla formations that could attack enemy rear areas in the event of an invasion. Tseluyko demonstrates that using these tactics can increase the costs of a Russian invasion to unacceptable levels.

Overall, the book describes the factors that resulted in Ukrainian inaction in the face of Russia’s takeover of Crimea, while also highlighting the tenuous nature of the operation, which depended on Ukraine’s initial inaction for its success. While Ukraine’s military was undoubtedly much weaker than that of Russia, political factors such as the collapse of the government and Ukrainian soldiers’ initial reluctance to attack Russians, who in many cases lived and served nearby, were more important than the military balance in Russia’s victory. The implication is that the lessons of Crimea are not necessarily easily transferable to other places where Russia might seek to acquire territory, such as the Baltic states.


Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization. Dr. Gorenburg is also the editor of the journals Problems of Post-Communism and Russian Politics and Law and an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He has previously taught in the Department of Government at Harvard University and served as Executive Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). He holds a Ph.D in political science from Harvard University and a B.A. in international relations from Princeton University. He blogs on issues related to the Russian military at


Photo credit: Michael E