Even with the tons of weapons, ammunition and equipment delivered to Ukraine by Western allies in just the last few weeks, the Ukrainian military is outgunned by the larger, more technologically advanced Russian forces that have launched a multipronged invasion.
Back in December, the commander of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, outlined a scenario in which a Russian invasion would begin with airstrikes and rocket attacks aimed at ammunition depots and trench-bound troops — foreshadowing the attack that came early Thursday morning.
Very quickly, he said, the Ukrainian military would be incapacitated, its leadership unable to coordinate a defense and supply the front. After that, he said, responsibility would fall to frontline commanders to carry on the fight alone.
“They will hold up as long as there are bullets,” General Budanov said in an interview. “They’ll be able to use what they have in their hands, but believe me, without delivery of reserves, there’s not an army in the world that can hold out.”
General Budanov spoke at a time when the Russian military had deployed about 100,000 troops to the region. By the time of the invasion, according to U.S. officials, Russia had amassed an estimated 190,000 troops in or near Ukraine, including in Crimea and in Russia-backed separatist areas in the eastern Donbas region.
In recent weeks, the Russian military also deployed advanced S-400 antiaircraft systems that could effectively neutralize Ukraine’s small air force, as well as Iskander-M cruise missiles capable of striking targets just about anywhere in Ukraine.
The Russian force includes 120 to 125 battalion tactical groups, up from the mid-80s earlier in the month, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the American intelligence assessment. Some of the forces are Russian reservists who would make up an occupation force after an invasion, the officials said. The officials asked for anonymity to discuss government assessments.
Ukraine has only slightly more enlisted soldiers and officers in its entire military, according to the Ministry of Defense. The roughly 200 aircraft that comprise Ukraine’s entire air force are fewer than the number of fighter planes that Russia has deployed already to the Ukrainian border.
But Ukraine’s military is not the pushover it once was. In 2014, elite Russia troops were able to seize the entire Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine without firing a shot. When Russian-backed separatists then took over part of the Donbas, Ukraine had to rely on volunteer brigades of people who took up arms, with little or no military training.
The Ukrainian military has since clawed its way back, fighting the separatists to a stalemate and putting a stop to the most serious hostilities. It did so with help from Western allies.
The United States alone has provided $2.5 billion in military assistance that has included high-tech surveillance and communications equipment and drones. In November, the United States delivered about 88 tons of ammunition, part of a $60 million military aid package pledged by the Biden administration.