Digital Salad: Russia vs Ukraine

It’s time for another post about world politics. Hopefully you’re still with me on these, mixing up my posts with plenty of variety. Variety is the spice of life after all!

I started these politics posts a few weeks ago with a post about the Ukraine crisis. Things have rumbled on in the crisis since then, with the Crimea effectively declaring independence on Sunday (16th March) – instantly applying to become a member republic of the Russian Federation. The USA, EU and new Ukrainian government do not recognise this result and have responded with sanctions against pro-Russian Crimean leaders and some Russian politicians.


Things have continued to hurtle towards the edge of the proverbial cliff in the Crimea in recent weeks. A region, predominantly, made up of ethnic Russians; with a proud minority of Tatars, has become an independent nation – swamped with Russian soldiers in plain uniforms.

I talked a bit about the ins and outs about the crisis in the last post. The really important point, though, is that despite how aggressive the Russian actions may seem to those of us in the West – the Russian motives are understandable to a certain extent. Whether we agree with them or not, the only real way to achieve a settlement is through talking with the Russians on a level footing – and not as shocked westerners condemning the ‘barbaric’ Russian bears.

Practicalities though are meaning that talking isn’t happening. Whilst there isn’t any productive diplomacy going on; on the ground there are a handful of Ukrainian bases surrounded by Russian troops in the now, pseudo-independent Crimea. These troops have been given until the end of the week to leave, or else join the Russian army, with the unspoken threat that to refuse would result in an attack.

A nice little map of the Crimea situation at the moment
A nice little map of the Crimea situation at the moment

The Ukrainians hold up in these bases are determined to stand, and have been ordered not to retreat. Seemingly both sides are pushing and pushing until the other blinks. If neither blinks a conflict might well follow. Indeed, there are reports that one Ukrainian officer might already have been shot by Russian soldiers surrounding his base on Tuesday (18th).

It certainly seems like neither side is willing to blink, with Russia massing troops on the Ukrainian border and sending more into the Crimea. Ukraine has responded by calling up and deploying thousands of reservists and national guard. Both sides are gearing up for all-out war, with the rhetoric from politicians on both sides noticeably ratcheting up recently.

Add to that the Head of the Russian State Owned TV Channel threatening to turn the west into “radioactive dust” – and the nuclear card seems to be being readied in the background of the Crimea shadow game.

Time for Digital Salad to investigate what a conflict might mean- how would it go? I’m certainly hoping that it doesn’t come to conflict, but to consider how a conflict might play out is useful to consider when discussions are still possible between both sides to hopefully avoid the fighting.

Russian nuclear weapon platform - might we see these being deployed aggressively in the coming weeks? (not exactly a subtle vehicle!)
Russian nuclear weapon platform – might we see these being deployed aggressively in the coming weeks? (not exactly a subtle vehicle!)

First off, who would win a conventional war between Russia and the Ukraine?

Almost certainly this is the two sides to the potential war. The fledgling pro-Russian Crimea has a tiny army that might well get involved, but its not much worth considering. You might see pro-Russian mobs, maybe even militias, rising up in the east of Ukraine; but again, it would be the Russian army that would be the real key actors in this situation.

On paper the Russians massively overwhelm the Ukrainian armed forces, especially with structure of the Ukrainians under stress from their revolution still. However, its certain that the Ukrainian army would make a determined stand if the Russians were to invade or attack, indeed it would likely unite them staunchly against the invader (that’s the first assumption of this make believe conflict – it will likely be the Russians who are the attacking forces, which would be true even in the unlikely event the Ukrainians triggered the war – they would automatically have to be defensive because of the Russian superiority).

Could the Russians use their superiority though?

Yes and no. They’ve had weeks to build up, so they have got it all ready to go. But, they would have to be very careful with what they use. The Russian military is so huge and spread out that it can only muster roughly two times the size of the Ukrainian armed forces for an invasion of the Ukraine, which would likely not be enough to crush a determined and reasonably well equipped Ukrainian military. Could the Russians use their air and armour superiority? Perhaps not if they were invading to ‘save’ ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, so they would again be at a disadvantage.

The Russians have bad history here. During the winter of 1939-40 the Soviets invaded Finland, a technically neutral nation in the newly begun WW2. There’s a few similarities between the current situation and today’s situation between Russia and Ukraine, another case where international opinion was outraged by the seemingly unprompted Russian aggression. It got to the stage where the British and French were sending troops to help the Finnish fight their, technically allied, Soviet enemies.

The entire Soviet military machine pouring onto the small Finish defence forces looked like a very one-sided contest, even more so than Ukraine vs Russia looks today. Yet, the Finnish held on against overwhelming odds for much longer than expected. The Soviet army was significantly damaged by Stalin’s purges of his officers (where he killed an estimated 30,000 of his best military minds for no apparent reason), but the comparison is still a useful one. You can’t help but wonder if a young Russian army officer would feel much different if he had bad news to tell Stalin or modern day Putin. Not that Putin is anywhere near the despot that Stalin was, but he has stifled talent in the Russian military in favour of yes-men.

The Finns held out against the Soviets in 1939/40 - so maybe the Ukrainians could do as well?
The Finns held out against the Soviets in 1939/40 – so maybe the Ukrainians could do as well?

There’s more recent bad Russian history as well in the 2008 Russo-Georgian Conflict. A conflict between the tiny ex-Soviet, western looking, republic of Georgia and the full might of Russia over a breakaway region of Abkhazia which considered itself Russian, not Georgian. Sounds familiar?

The Georgian military is a tiny fraction of the Russian, far smaller than the Ukrainians can deploy. Although the Georgians did have some high-tech American equipment, the balance was still very heavily in favour of the Russians. A very short conflict before a French backed peace plan was put into force, the Georgians managed to stand up against the Russians and even push them back in the city of Tskhinvali even though outnumbered.

For whatever reason the Russians don’t seem to overwhelm enemies as easily as the paper statistics would lead you to believe. The Ukrainian military would be a tougher opponent than either the Georgians or the Finns, so it might well be that the Ukrainians could hold out.

Money - there can't be war without it
Money – there can’t be war without it

These predictions that the Ukrainians could hold out against the Russians hinge on the idea that the conflict would be short. There’s good reason for that – because from the moment the proverbial conflict would begin the Russian economy would be in free-fall. Even its own national investors would be selling as fast as possible, and a massive drop in the value of the Russian currency and economy would almost certainly follow. War is incredibly costly, and a Russian economy based on primary resource sales to countries which would most likely stop buying entirely in the event of all out Ukrainian-Russian war would severely hurt economically. It couldn’t last long, economically or politically.

It’s almost certain that Putin knows this, he’s a very shrewd world politician. He knows that the conflict would be short, and that he must be very clear what he wants to achieve before taking that plunge. If he wants territory he has to take it and hold it in days, then cease the fighting quick enough for the markets to stop their free-fall before it became too serious.

The nuclear spectre
The nuclear specter

In all of this there is an ominous spirit in the background. The Russians have made comments suggesting that they would use nuclear weapons over the Ukrainian crisis if any intervention happened by western powers. Whilst we can hope that that would be unlikely, it remains that Russia does possess literally thousands of nuclear warheads which it could use at any moment of its choosing to destroy the entire planet.

That’s a whole different kettle of fish, though, as to why they probably won’t be using the nuclear option soon – indeed, I’m sure nearly everyone on all sides hopes not. I hope to someday soon do another blog on nuclear weapons, but that would make this one far too long!

Should a conventional war break out between Ukraine and Russia it won’t be as devastating as you might fear, the Russians likely won’t steamroller all the way to Kiev and it will be a matter of weeks if not days in length. I hope a peaceful solution is found soon and that conflict can be avoided, but lets also hope that any potential conflict is minimally destructive.

Digital Salad –


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