As the situation in Crimea grows increasingly tense, more and more depressing scenarios are beginning to emerge. In perhaps the worst of them, Ukraine is forced to wage a war against Russia. Judging by numbers alone, that would probably seem a very one-sided battle. "I think most experts would agree that a fight between the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces would not be a fair fight," Marybeth P. Ulrich, a professor in the U.S. Army War College's Department of National Security and Strategy, told The Washington Post in an e-mail. "While Ukraine has a good number of forces (129, 950), they are vastly outnumbered by Russia (845,000)." "The air and naval assets decidedly favor Russia too," Ulrich continued. "There is not much to speak of with regard to the Ukrainian navy (17 assorted vessels) vs. Russia's Black Sea Fleet (Russia has 171 vessels overall) which of course is situated right in Crimea and has been instrumental in taking control of Crimea from within." War isn't just about the numbers, however, and there are some bright spots for the Ukrainian military:
- So far at least, the military is loyal. Ukrainians view their military with significant national pride: When the Guardian's Shaun Walker visited a Ukrainian marine base in Crimea recently, he spoke to one marine — an ethnic Russian, no less — who explained why he had to fight. "I am Russian myself, I was born there," he said. "But we are professional soldiers and we have given an oath of duty. We will not give up this place without a fight." While there have been defections in the Ukrainian navy already, so far they seem to be limited, a pretty remarkable thing when you consider the ethnic divides in the country. In fact, Russian aggression might be something that actually unites the country behind the military. "If the military is unified against a foreign invader," said Matthew Clements, deputy head of Europe/CIS Analysis at IHS Country Risk, "with the support of the majority of the population, then that would be an important morale booster."
- Russia's military might be bigger, but they are also more extended. Mark Galeotti, a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, has argued that though Ukraine's military is smaller than Russia, it's still "big enough." Why, exactly? Well one reason is that while Russia has a huge military, that huge military isn't just for invading Ukraine. "[Russia] cannot afford politically or even economically to assemble more than a fraction of these forces for a war," Galeotti explains in an article for Blouin News. "It cannot denude its other borders, nor strip the North Caucasus of troops. Many are also unsuited to such a conflict, such as the nuclear forces or the Pacific Fleet." All told, Russia might be able to muster twice the amount of troops as Ukraine, Galeotti argues. And that might not be enough.
- Ukraine's military leaders can play it cool. As my colleague Will Englund has pointed out, for all the similarities in the situation between Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, there is still one big difference: Georgia fired first. Yes, back in 2008, it was Georgian troops who attacked posts in breakaway republic South Ossetia, thus drawing the wrath of Russia. So far, Ukrainian troops and their leaders have kept their cool and not given any reason for Russia to react. Remember: Russia trounced Georgia in 2008, but their victory wasn't as easy as many would have expected. The Russian military has spent the past six years modernizing, but doubts may still linger in commanders' heads. They may not want to attack unless they truly have to.
As Kimberly Marten, a political scientist at Columbia University, has pointed out over on the Monkey Cage blog, the significant Russian population in Crimea means that it is probably easier (not to mention vastly cheaper) to just influence it, rather than actually invade it and potentially have to take on the Ukrainian military. The same thing is probably true for many other parts of eastern Ukraine, too. For the reasons above, and many more, a Russian war with Ukraine just doesn't seem rational. Of course, that doesn't mean it won't happen.