3 reasons Ukraine may not be an easy target

MILITARY ACTION: Russian soldiers stand guard next to a Ukrainian military base in the town of Bakhchisarai in the Crimea.
MILITARY ACTION: Russian soldiers stand guard next to a Ukrainian military base in the town of Bakhchisarai in the Crimea.

As the situation in Crimea grows increasingly tense, more and more depressing scenarios are beginning to emerge.

In perhaps the worst, Ukraine is forced to wage war against Russia. Judging by numbers alone, that would 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 Ulrich, a professor in the US Army War College's Department of National Security and Strategy, said in an email. "While Ukraine has a good number of forces (129,950), they are vastly outnumbered by Russia (845,000)."

"The air and naval assets decidedly favour 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 — 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, so far they seem to be limited, a pretty remarkable thing when you consider the country's ethnic divides.

In fact, the Russian intervention might actually unite Ukrainians behind the military. "If the military is unified against a foreign invader," said Matthew Clements, deputy head of Europe and 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 it is also more extended. Mark Galeotti, a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, has argued that although Ukraine's military is smaller than Russia's, it's "big enough". One reason is that while Russia has a huge military, its armed forces aren'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." Russia might be able to muster twice the number of troops as Ukraine, Galeotti says. And that might not be enough.

— Ukraine's military leaders can play it cool. For all the similarities to the conflict with Georgia in 2008, there is one big difference: Georgia fired first. Yes, back in 2008, it was Georgian troops who attacked posts in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, drawing Russia's wrath. So far, Ukrainian troops and their leaders have not given Russia any reason to react. Remember, Russia trounced Georgia in 2008, but its victory wasn't as easy as many would have expected. And although the Russian military has spent the past six years modernizing, doubts may linger in commanders' heads. They may not want to attack unless they truly must.

As Kimberly Marten, a political scientist at Columbia University, has pointed out on The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, the significant Russian population in Crimea means that it is probably easier (not to mention vastly cheaper) to just influence the region rather than to invade it and possibly 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.

- The Washington Post