Even as Russia massed over 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders in April, Andriy Zagorodnyuk felt sure President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t go to war.
The former defence minister in Kyiv, who’d also spent years on projects to modernise Ukraine’s military, reasoned that Putin knew an invasion would be no walk in the park for Russia this time.
“Our task has been to make sure we can inflict unacceptable damage, a damage level so high that they will be demotivated to advance,” Zagorodnyuk said in a video interview from the Ukrainian capital.
That was a bold bet, though Ukraine had made dramatic improvements to its armed forces since a few thousand Russian troops, in uniforms with no identifiable markings, annexed Crimea without firing a shot in 2014. It could potentially have been catastrophically wrong.
Whatever Putin’s motives for the recent show of force (some of the additional troops have since pulled back), alongside tit-for-tat accusations with the U.K. over a British destroyer transit of Ukrainian waters, comparing military capabilities is difficult and becoming even more so. After a brief post-Cold War interlude in which the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation partners had no serious peer competitors, now they do.
Many common measures of military strength are misleading. Based on defence spending alone, for example, Spain should be stronger than Turkey, NATO’s second-largest military power after the U.S.; Saudi Arabia should be easily able to swat Iran; and Britain could go toe-to-toe in any conflict with Russia. None of the above is the case.