What Will Actually Happen if Russia Invades Ukraine
100,000 troops stand ready on Ukraine's border with Russia. Thousands more reservists have been called up to active duty. Diplomatic talks with the US and NATO have broken down.
Is Russia really about to invade Ukraine, and what will happen if it does? In 2014, despite publicly denying it, Russia invaded and seized Crimea- formally recognized as Ukrainian territory by the international community. Per Russia's narrative, the Crimean conflict was a domestically inspired revolutionary movement by ethnic Russians seeking to rejoin Russia. However, it very quickly became clear that this was a lie, as Russian special forces- who'd earn the moniker 'little green men' for their featureless uniforms- were confirmed to be working with Crimean rebels. Then, deep dives into Russian social media produced even more damning evidence of regular Russian soldiers operating inside of Ukrainian territory itself. Russia never formally admitted to utilizing both unconventional and conventional military forces in Crimea to fight off Ukrainian forces, and in the end Crimea declared itself independent and was quickly absorbed by Russia.
Since then fighting against rebel forces has continued across disputed Ukrainian territory, and Russia has continued to support these rebel forces- albeit in a slightly less obvious way. Now the fear of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine seems more real than ever, as 100,000 Russian soldiers mass on the border with the breakaway former Soviet republic. But why would Russia risk angering the world with an invasion of a bordering nation, could it really do it, and what would the world's response be if it did? Since the end of the Cold War Russia has largely been in retreat from its former Soviet glory. It saw massive losses of territory, and subsequent economic outflow, from the independence of numerous former Soviet republics.
As the nation struggled through the tumultuous post-Soviet Union years, many of these newly independent nations took the opportunity to ensure their own survival and independence by drawing closer ties with the West. Russia made it very clear that it did not want NATO to expand further east than Germany, and yet one by one new eastern European states joined NATO'S ranks, pushing NATO forces closer and closer to Russian territory. Eventually NATO would stand on Russia's northern, with NATO forces within 500 miles of Moscow itself.
For a nation with as difficult a history as Russia, this was the sum of all fears, and a strategic disaster. Rarely ever the invader, Russia itself has been repeatedly invaded throughout its history- and each time the human and economic toll was profound. Many of these invasions threatened the very independence of the nation itself, such as Germany's near-defeat of the Red Army in World War II and Napoleon’s invasion during the Napoleonic Wars. These invasions are so threatening because Russia sits at the eastern edge of the European plain, a large swathe of relatively flat land that is very difficult to defend.
With modern, fast moving military formations this strategic deficiency only increased, and after World War II the Soviet Union became obsessed with pushing any potential future aggressor as far west as possible. This led the Soviet Union to extend its sphere of influence as far west as Germany, creating the infamous Soviet bloc as a buffer zone to any future invasion. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc, Russia's influence receded practically back to its own borders and all the strategic gains of the last fifty years evaporated overnight. Today more eastern european nations have chosen to draw closer to the US and its European allies than to Russia, mostly due to Russia's authoritarian system of government and fears of becoming puppet states once more. As the new millenium dawned, Ukraine began to seek a pathway for membership into NATO, and Russia warned that this would be tantamount to a declaration of war between itself and NATO.
Not willing to antagonize Russia, NATO postponed the Ukraine question indefinitely, despite building cooperative ties with the nation. In 2014 Ukraine's worst fears were realized, and now its continued independence is in question by the 100,000 strong Russian forces massing on its border. If Russia invaded though, how would Ukraine fair without Western aid? Ukraine has a population roughly a third the size of Russia, and its military is ranked at the no. 22 spot according to Globalfirepower.com, which ranks world military powers according
to the strength of their militaries, their economies, and demographics. Russia, despite slowly slipping out of it, still retains the number 2 spot as the world's second strongest military power, and its overmatch with Ukraine is significant. Russia's military numbers at 850,000 active personnel, versus Ukraine's 200,000 strong military- a mismatch of 650,000 in Russia's favor. Due to the ever-growing threat of all-out war with Russia, both Ukraine and Russia have the same number of available reservists, 250,000, as Ukraine has dramatically increased readiness and training of reservist units.
Since 2014 it has created dozens of additional reserve units which can be quickly activated to combat Russian troops. In the air, Russia absolutely dwarfs Ukraine, with the second best air force in the world numbering 4,173 strong. Ukraine on the other hand only has 318 aircraft available, with only 69 of these being fighter aircraft versus a fleet of 772 Russian fighters. Russia also enjoys a massive advantage in attack aircraft, with 739 dedicated attack platforms versus Ukraine's 29. With the world's second largest air mobility fleet, Russia can call upon 445 aircraft to rapidly move troops into combat areas, or launch airborne invasions deep into Ukrainian territory.
By comparison, Ukraine's tiny air mobility fleet of 32 would struggle to move significant personnel or supplies in theater. Russia's attack helicopter fleet also vastly outnumbers Ukraine's own, with 544 attack helicopters versus 34. On land Russia claims a tank corps over 12,000 strong- but it's widely accepted that only a few thousand of these vehicles- likely around 6,000- are capable of immediate combat operations. The rest are Cold War era leftovers which are in mothball storage and would require weeks to reactivate and deploy. Ukraine on the other hand has a tank force of 2,596, giving Russia a probable 2 to 1 advantage over Ukraine.
Russia also maintains a sizable advantage in number of armored vehicles used to support combat operations, with 30,122 versus Ukraine's 12,303. So what story do these numbers tell about a possible Russian invasion? Firstly, while the numbers advantage is decidedly on the Russian side, Ukraine wouldn't actually be facing the full force of the Russian military even in a worst-case scenario. That's because a significant number of these troops are required for security operations elsewhere.
Russia must still maintain a strong defensive posture along its northern border with NATO, and along its far eastern flank on the Pacific in order to deter a possible American incursion. Realistically, only about 50% of its Western and Southern military districts would be freed up for combat operations in Ukraine, with some reinforcements from the rest of Russia's 3 other military districts. A probable invasion of Ukraine would involve between 150,000 to 200,000 troops, bringing the number parity much more in line as Ukraine would be free to use most of its forces to combat the Russian invasion. With Belarus being a strong Russian ally though, a significant number of Ukrainian forces must be left in reserve in case of an unexpected northern incursion, so even Ukraine can't commit its entire force to the fight.
Russian reinforcements would also need to make the lengthy trip from training camps or other military districts to Ukraine, while Ukraine would be drawing up reservists just miles from the fighting. In a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia would not enjoy the vast number superiority that the raw data shows, even if- as Russia believes- portions of the Ukrainian population would join them in a bid to rejoin Russia... a dubious proposition indeed. In the air, even only utilizing 30-40% of its Air Forces, Russia would still dominate the skies.
Ukraine operates largely Cold War era aircraft which are being kept operational by a domestic arms industry, while Russia's inventory is largely modern, though not entirely so. Russia's overmatch in the skies would allow it to establish complete air superiority, and its extensive ground-based air defense batteries would allow it to threaten over half of Ukraine from the ground without ever moving an air defense unit inside Ukraine's borders. Thus Ukraine would likely opt to simply move its aircraft west and not even bother dedicating them to the fight, opting instead for ground-based air defense. On the ground, Russia's tank forces vastly outnumber Ukraine's- but at least some of Ukraine's tanks are actually more capable than Russia's. In the second half of the 2010s as war with Russia seemed ever more likely, Ukraine began a program of upgrading its Cold War era T-64s, which are on the whole more sophisticated than Russia's vast fleet of T-72s. Domestic upgrades have made the Ukrainian T-64BM Bulat deadlier than Russia's own T-72- but even with two factories dedicated to the task of upgrading Ukraine's tanks, it still only has about 300 upgraded T-64s in its inventory.
Sadly with complete domination of the skies, this is likely to matter little as Russian air power systematically seeks out and destroys Ukrainian armor. Russia's sizable numerical advantage is diminished significantly in an invasion of Ukraine due to its defense commitments elsewhere, but it still allows Russia to rotate combat troops out of theater with fresh forces, and to replenish combat losses of aircraft and vehicles at a rate that Ukraine simply can't match. Further, while the Russian Air Force also has defense commitments elsewhere, the nation would be able to dedicate a large number of strike aircraft to the initial days of the war, launching a devastating blitzkrieg of overwhelming force against Ukrainian troops, supply depots, and command and control nodes. Russia also enjoys very robust electronic warfare capabilities, having made much greater investments into this area of warfighting than most other nations in a bid to defeat American smart weapons and erode its technological advantage. Russian electronic warfare could seriously degrade Ukrainian defensive radar, interrupt or fully jam Ukrainian communications, and even aid in the spread of disinformation and propaganda.
This has already been seen in combat along Ukraine's eastern front, as Russian EW units jammed Ukrainian communications and even spoofed text messages to soldiers on the front lines with demoralizing or confusing orders. For the most part, Ukraine has no such capability. However, while the numbers heavily favor Russia, a conquest of Ukraine would by no means be easy for it. For starters, Ukraine enjoys the home field advantage, and after eight years of hostilities with Russia, pro-independence sentiments are strong amongst the Ukrainian population.
Dreams of being welcomed as liberators by the locals, and even having entire guerrilla movements spring up to aid invading Russian forces are almost certainly a Russian fantasy at this point. The Ukrainian people also have some faith that the West would not simply abandon them to Russian aggression, given that Ukraine's annexation back into the Russian fold would be a strategic disaster for NATO. This would help bolster morale in a brutal and very bloody invasion. Ukrainian military forces have also proven themselves to be far more capable than Russia believed in 2014. When the process of annexing Crimea began, the Kremlin believed that Ukrainian forces would quickly crumble, and be incapable of long-term significant resistance to rebellion movements sweeping across the country's eastern border with Russia. It was believed that Ukraine would quickly fall piece by piece to 'pro-Russian independence' movements, financed of course with weapons and supplies by Russia itself.
Yet the Ukrainian armed forces did not collapse as expected, and while they were unable to weather the onslaught of battle against line Russian forces disguised as rebels in Crimea, they have largely been able to contain the separatists and Ukraine remains united. Ukrainian military units have proven surprisingly resilient and capable even under assault by modern and more capable Russian weapon systems, prompting the United States to send numerous observers to gather intelligence on Russian capabilities. The world has also not stood idly by as Ukraine was covertly invaded by Russian forces, and in anticipation of a full-scale invasion, has taken steps to ensure that the nation is able to defend itself. The United States alone has provided a whopping $2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine, with an additional $200 million given in December of 2021. This aid has largely taken the form of anti-tank missiles, anti-air missiles, counterartillery radar systems, patrol boats, small arms, and millions of rounds of ammunition.
To date, the United States is responsible for 90% of all aid given to Ukraine. The specific type of aid given speaks to the US's thoughts on a Russian invasion. The vast amount of deadly Javelin anti-tank missiles provided to Ukraine are meant to maul Russian tanks and armored vehicles, and represent an extremely significant threat to a Russian invasion. Man-portable air defense weapons will help Ukrainian soldiers eat into Russia's air superiority, threatening Russian aircraft and providing a survivable air defense component that is not easily destroyed by Russian forces.
Much like in Afghanistan, Russia could face a serious threat from US air defense weapons, possibly having a significant impact on air operations in the country. Counterartillery radar systems will help Ukraine take on Russia's sizable artillery forces, which provide much of the Russian military's killing power. In combat operations against rebel and Russian forces, Ukraine's tank corps has suffered 400 casualties, and almost all of these to Russian-made artillery. Counterartillery radar will allow Ukrainian artillery to immediately launch counter-battery fire, destroying slow-moving Russian artillery. It's more important contribution however may be in limiting Russian artillery operations, as they will now have to take into account the possibility of counter-fire and thus practice shoot-and-scoot procedures which limit total rate of fire and place non-motorized artillery units in serious risk. However, US assistance has been more hands-on as well.
The American military has provided direct intelligence support to Ukraine in the form of detailed satellite imagery and analysis, helping Ukrainian forces pinpoint rebel forces, track their movements, and target them for destruction. The assistance of America's 'eyes in the sky' has had the effect of saving hundreds of Ukrainian soldier's lives. The United States military has also assisted Ukraine by providing medical supplies and equipment, as well as hosting numerous training exercises in western Ukraine. US active-duty, reserve, and national guard forces have all been deployed to Western Ukraine to help train local forces, bringing their combat expertise in Iraq and Afghanistan and teaching Ukrainian soldiers how to properly employ modern anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons donated by the US.
While no direct combat assistance has been provided by America to Ukraine, numerous and completely unacknowledged intelligence gathering and recon units have been deployed into the nation's conflict zones. This has allowed US forces to gather detailed intelligence on Russian weapon systems, as well as collect critical data on Russian electronic warfare operations and capabilities. This intelligence has helped Ukrainian forces directly in preparation for combat ops, but has also allowed the United States to better prepare for its own confrontation with Russia. The CIA has also joined the conflict.
Its secretive Special Activities Division has been training Ukrainian forces in guerrilla warfare tactics for years, and helping prepare the nation for a possible invasion. The CIA's SAD (S-A-D) has been preparing Ukrainian active duty and reserve forces to wage an unconventional war against Russia's superior military, incorporating lessons learned from Vietnam and both the US's and Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. So what would a Russian invasion of Ukraine look like, and what might happen? Russia's main thrust into Ukraine would come from its shared border, with an intense air campaign lasting two or more days destroying any Ukrainian air opposition and targeting command and control nodes, troop staging areas, supply hubs, and industrial sectors. In a mirror to the US's own strategy of shock and awe, the intent would be a swift and incomprehensibly violent campaign meant to blind the Ukrainian military, throw it into disarray by disrupting communications, and seriously demoralize it through extensive bombing. Ground based missiles would supplement air operations, allowing Russian missile units deep inside its own territory to lay waste to Ukrainian targets. The next phase of the attack would come on the heels of the air campaign, with a massive armored thrust into eastern Ukraine.
A double-pronged assault would see Russian forces pouring into Ukraine from the northeast border and from inside the separatist controlled area, which could afford Russia with a staging area for an invasion- albeit such an act would give away its plans to invade long before they were put into effect. Another possibility, though a risky one for Russia, would be a naval assault against Odessa from Crimea itself. Russia's Black Sea naval forces have seen major reinforcements since 2014, and while still low in numbers, Russia's current fleet in the region is capable of amphibious operations. Historically, Russia has had difficulty with amphibious ops due to logistical issues, and these same issues would be present today.
However, Russia could still amass an amphibious assault force of 3,600 troops backed up by 70 main battle tanks and 153 amphibious armored personnel carriers in a first strike against Odessa. These would be quickly reinforced by further amphibious operations. The move would be risky, but if successful would leave Russia in control of 70% of Ukraine's trade, giving it incredible leverage over the country. Russia could also potentially launch an invasion from Belarus into Ukraine, however to do so it would have to move a significant amount of personnel and equipment into the nation. This would once more tip its hand early, and allow Ukraine, and the world, more time to prepare a response. How would this really play out though? The main Russian assault across the border and from the separatist controlled areas would be difficult for Ukraine to defend against.
However, the proliferation of American Javelin anti-tank missiles would take a heavy toll on Russian forces and severely slow their rate of advance. At this point, Ukraine's goal would be to slow the pace of the war as much as possible in hope of an international response and resolution, as it could never defeat the Russian military on its own. Ukrainian forces would be dedicated to stalling the Russian attack, and trading blood for time.
Even US military aid is focused to this end- hence why America has not provided larger weapon systems it knows would be unlikely to survive an initial Russian assault. Man-portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons gifted by the US to Ukraine are much more difficult to destroy and allow unconventional forces to take a heavy toll on conventional forces. Ukraine would inevitably be forced into a fighting retreat in the east, with the goal of buying enough time for the world to respond to the crisis. Taking a page from the CIA's playbook for a possible Soviet invasion of the West during the Cold War, some units might even allow themselves to be completely overrun, going to ground and remaining hidden as Russian forces push past them.
This 'secret army' doctrine was theory-crafted by the CIA in the 60s and 70s, and it was only until recent years that secret plans to leave entire 'sleeper armies' behind enemy lines were revealed. The intent was simple- given that certain military forces were unlikely to survive against a vastly superior Soviet force, they would simply not fight and allow the enemy to push past them. Then once they were in the enemy's rear area, they would rise up and cause mayhem and destruction behind enemy lines against much weaker rear-area security forces. An invasion of Odessa from Crimea is possible as well, though unlikely. Russia is very aware of the limitations of its amphibious fleet in the Black Sea, and would likely choose against such a risky- if high-yield- operation. Such an operation would face no truly significant naval opposition, but could face a sizable ground defense force.
Given the likely slow advance of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, reinforcements would have to come either by sea or by air. If by sea, Russia's sea lift capabilities would doubtlessly dwindle over time as ships and landing craft are lost in combat operations or equipment breakdowns. A steady flow of reinforcements would inevitably slow to a trickle due to logistical losses. Russia would have to take and hold major port facilities to allow for large numbers of troops and equipment to be offloaded, likely with civilian vessels pressed into military service.
It's highly unlikely that Ukraine would allow such facilities to remain ucontested, or even operational. Another option would be to reinforce Odessa via airlift operations, or airborne paradrops. However, the wide proliferation of American anti-aircraft weapons make this an extremely risky proposition, and Russian airborne forces- which would already be facing steep losses to these weapons- could be devastated attempting a landing so deep in Ukrainian territory.
Despite being a possible war-winning strategic victory, the taking of Odessa would have to be done the hard way, with a slow but steady advance from the east by Russian ground forces. Instead, Russian Black Sea naval forces would use their significant land-attack capabilities to pound Ukrainian forces and military installations, while amphibious assaults near the front could flank Ukrainian front-line units- a much better use for them than a potentially suicidal attack against Odessa. The world's response to Russian aggression would undoubtedly be immediate and very punishing sanctions, but Russia has grown to be very resilient to further economic damage by global sanctions. The nation has already been severely punished by international sanctions, wreaking havoc in its economic and even military sectors, but there's a limit to what further sanctions could really do to the nation. Plus, thanks to its massive energy exports- which European nations rely on to a large degree- Russia has built up a sizable war chest to help it weather sanctions and the cost of combat operations. However, the United States has stated through its diplomats that it is ready to impose even more damaging sanctions on Russia should it invade Ukraine, as well as take 'unspecified actions' that the US has never taken before.
What exactly these unspecified actions could be remain a mystery, and could range from direct military intervention to massive cyber warfare operations against Russia. What is certain is that the United States and NATO would immediately supply Ukraine with much more offensive military aid. In a very real sense, the future of Ukraine is the future of Europe itself in the 21st century, and given the strategic importance of Ukraine to NATO, it seems increasingly unlikely that a Russian invasion won't eventually be met with a US-led military campaign against Russia. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, also seems to know this, as he recently threatened that Russia's nuclear arsenal stands ready for combat- this no doubt because he understands that unless he can secure swift victory in Ukraine, the Russian military is no match for the US in a longer conflict. Now go check out US vs Russia, who would win 2021 military comparison- or click this other video instead!