Geography is Destiny: Ukraine’s Options Are Limited

Russia is much stronger militarily than Ukraine. When Russia suffered setbacks on the battlefield, it never hesitated to launch massive, indiscriminate, and destructive attacks on the civilian population and infrastructure, as was demonstrated in the two Chechnya wars. If there is a war between Russia and Ukraine, Russia, one way or another, will win it. This is important to note as the crisis over Ukraine deepens, and as many – too many – voices in the West are, in effect, urging Ukraine: “You fight Russia, and we’ll hold your coat.” This is a cavalier, and likely exceedingly costly, advice.

Say what you will about Vladimir Putin, but one thing is not in doubt: Over the last two decades, he has presided over the modernization and significant improvement of Russia’s armed forces.

As Michael Evans writes in The Times, when Putin assumed Russia’s leadership on 7 May 2000, his first ambition was to revive and rebuild the military, making it clear that he wanted Russia once again to be a force to be reckoned with.

This is important to note as the crisis over Ukraine deepens, and as many – too many – voices in the West are, in effect, urging Ukraine: “You fight Russia, and we’ll hold your coat.”

This is a cavalier, and likely exceedingly costly, advice.


Russia-Ukraine Armed Forces: A Comparison

Combat troops:
Russia: 900,000 (Army: 280,000; Navy: 150,000; Airforce: 165,000; Other*: 305,000)

Ukraine: 204,000 (Army: 145,000; Navy: 11,000; Airforce: 45,000; Other**: 3,000)

* Russia: Strategic Rocket Force, Airborne, Special Operational Forces, Railway Force, Cammand and Support, Paramilitary

** Ukraine: Airborne, Special Operation Forces, Paramilitary

Russia: 2,000,000

Ukraine: 900,000

Main battle tanks
Russia: 2,840

Ukraine: 858

Russia: 4,684

Ukraine: 1,818

Combat aircraft
Russia: 1,160

Ukraine: 125

Attack helicopters
Russia: 394

Ukraine: 0

Russia: 15

Ukraine: 1


In the last twenty years, the Russian military has not only improved the equipment it develops and deploys — it has also substantially changed its military structure, organization, and doctrine.

First, the Russian army was converted from an organization which relied on underpaid, badly equipped conscripts into a largely professional volunteer force of 400,000 soldiers, who receive much better wages and much better training.

Second, the Russian military now has a much more professional officer class – motivated, disciplined, and well-compensated.

Third, the Russian armed forces are now structured around high readiness “tactical groups,” that is, multiple battalions trained in combined-arms operations and able to operate independently or as part of a larger force.

The results of these changes and improvements were evident in the Russian operations in Georgia in 2008; Crimea in 2014; eastern Ukraine since 2014; and in Syria since 2015.

Military leaders and analysts in other countries have noticed the improvements.

“The compliment that we have to pay to Russia is that they are a learning and adaptive force,” General Philip Breedlove, a former NATO supreme allied commander Europe from 2013-2016, told The New York Times. “Every time we see them in conflict, they get a little better and a little better,” he said.

Andrew Krepinevich, a former senior Pentagon official with twenty years of experience in the U.S. Army, told Evans that “Things began improving when the military showed its ability to employ cyberweapons against Estonia in 2007, and again against Georgia along with some conventional forces a year later…. But both were small operations. More impressive were the operations of the so-called Ukrainian separatists in the past few years, aided by the Russian military.”

The Chechen Precedent

Liam Collins, the Founding Director of the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy West Point, agrees that “Despite the advances of the Ukrainian military, Russia’s military, due to its sheer size, would still overwhelm the Ukrainians,” but that Russia’s ultimate victory would “inflict heavy losses on the Russians”

He writes that Stinger missiles would shoot down Russian jets and helicopters, while Javelin man-portable, self-guided anti-tank missiles would extract a high cost from Russian armored units (see “Russia’s Recent Invasions of Ukraine and Georgia Offer Clues to What Putin Might Be Thinking Now,” HSNW, 29 January 2022).

The problem with this line of argument is that however high the cost the Ukrainian military may inflict on the Russian forces, Russia can, and will, inflict a much, much higher cost on Ukraine – and that cost will not be limited to the Ukrainian armed forces.

Russia, which considers control of Ukraine to be a core national security interest, may respond to any setbacks on the battlefield the way it responded to military setbacks in the two wars it launched against Chechen separatists: with a devastating, indiscriminate destruction of the country civilian infrastructure; the killing of tens of thousands of civilians; and the displacements of hundreds of thousands.

In the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, between 30,000 and 100,000 Chechen civilians were killed (the first figure is offered by the Russian military; the second figure by the Chechen rebels); more than 200,000 civilians injured, and more than 500,000 were displaced as their villages, towns, and neighborhoods were bombed by Russian planes and artillery.

The second Chechen war, from 1999 to 2009, caused the death of more than 50,000 Chechen civilians. The graphic symbol of the second Chechen war was the destruction of the Chechen capital city, Grozny.

The separatist rebels decided to make a stand in Grozny, probably in the belief that in the television age, Russia would be inhibited from conducting an all-our war in a big, modern city. But the rebels were wrong: for seven weeks, from early December 1999 to 2 February 2000, unrelenting Russia air, artillery, and rocket bombardment reduced Grozny to a pile of rubble, reminiscent of the cities of Dresden and Berlin toward the end of the Second World War.

In a 2003 report, the UN described Grozny as the most destroyed city on earth.

Realistic Options in Ukraine

The debate over the strategic and political wisdom of expanding NATO eastward, bringing the military alliance right to the doorstep of Russia, should wait for another day. Here we will note only that Russia was willing to accept NATO membership for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – they all joined in 1999 — but when, under George W. Bush, NATO kept expanding into areas formerly under Soviet sway, Russia became increasingly anxious. The process was capped in 2008, when, in a speech in Bucharest, Bush said that NATO’s door will be open for Ukraine.

The fact that NATO was inching ever closer to Russia’s borders, and the fact that the United States had launched regime-changing campaigns in Iraq in 2003 (and contemplated doing the same in Syria); in Libya in 2011; and encouraged the Orange Revolution in Ukraine itself in 2004, were too much for Russia. A line had to be drawn.

Putin is a ruthless despot who rules over a corrupt political system. He has not hesitated to order the killing of his critics – even when they have left Russia and live abroad. Journalists who criticize his regime find themselves pushed to their death from rooftops or poisoned. But it is difficult to see any Russian leader accepting NATO on Russia’s borders or accepting Western European countries meddling in areas that Russia has considered to be within its sphere of influence for hundreds of years.

Call it Russia’s own Monroe Doctrine.

Ukraine has always been a part of Russia’s sphere of influence. There may be Ukrainian nationalists who wish this were not the case, but it is.

To be fair to Ukraine, we should be honest with them. We should encourage them to be realistic about their situation and about their options:

Since Russia is not going to allow Ukraine to join any Western military alliance, ever; since Russia is much stronger militarily than Ukraine; since, when it comes to its core security interests, Russia proved itself willing to use military power indiscriminately to destroy entire villages, towns, and cities; kill hundreds of thousands of civilians; and force the evacuations of hundreds of thousands more from their homes; since the West is not going to send soldiers to fight for Ukraine; and since, one way or another, Russia is going to win this war regardless of whatever valiant resistance Ukraine offers – then this is a war that should not be fought.

Ukraine should not want to become another Chechnya.

This is not the place to discuss a solution to the Ukrainian crisis, but Ukraine should consider the example of Finland and Austria, two neutral countries which, based on an arrangement reached with the Soviet Union after the Second World War, agreed not to join any Western military alliance, but otherwise enjoy their political, cultural, and economic freedom.

Russia may not allow Ukraine quite the same degree of freedom allowed Finland and Austria, but even a “Finland light” status for Ukraine would be preferable to a Chechnya-level killing and destruction.

Ukrainians, and those who wish Ukraine well, should accept this reality. Geography is destiny.

Ben Frankel is the editor of the Homeland Security News Wire.

1 Comment
  1. I do believe that the West must refrain from positioning NATO as an anti-Russian organization, but consider Ukraine’s right to self determination above Russia’s entitlement to control influence over former Soviet States. It should be up to Ukrainians via their elected leaders (without influence campaigns from Russia or the West) to determine whether Ukraine should be aligned with Russia or with the West. It is up to Ukraine to determine if there should be a path towards joining NATO, and if the answer is yes, then the West must have an obligation to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, while also enforcing stipulations to begin the country’s path to joining NATO.

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