Issue 20

What is Ukraine’s Best Bet?

Saaransh Mishra

While it is important to understand the roots of the invasion, pragmatically, the major concern right now is Ukraine defending itself against an indisputably mightier Russia. So, what exactly is Ukraine’s best bet?

In a brazen show of utter disregard for a democratic country’s sovereignty, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will go down as a dark moment in modern history, remembered for times to come. 

Over the last few months and amidst the current escalation, seasoned experts have incessantly been speculating regarding President Putin’s primary motivations behind launching this invasion. There is no clear answer. There is no dearth of historic and contemporary political explanations to contextualize these developments. To be fair, the reality could be congruent with any of these developments, or a combination. While it is surely important to understand the roots of this decision, pragmatically, the major concern right now is Ukraine defending itself against an indisputably mightier Russia. So, what exactly is Ukraine’s best bet? 

Realistically, the Russian defense forces are exponentially stronger and have a significantly larger endowment than Ukraine. Russia has 8,50,000 active personnel in the armed forces, as compared to Ukraine’s 2,00,000. Additionally, the Russian paramilitary size of 2,50,000 is five times that of Ukraine’s. Starkly in contrast to Russia’s military spending of $62 billion in 2020, Ukraine’s stood at a measly $6 billion in the same year. This certainly lends Russia the means to possess an edge through cyberwarfare, missiles, heavy weaponry, fighter planes, warships, and other kinds of ammunition. These factors comprehensively dwarf Ukraine’s ability to put up a resilient fight or so has been perceived. Expert opinions indicated that Putin thought this invasion was going to be relatively smooth, owing to Russia’s unquestionable dominance over its timid neighbors that failed to act decisively in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. 

However, the reality has unfolded rather harshly for Russia. With many more years of combat experience since 2014 and the continued supply of sophisticated arms and ammunition by the West, Ukraine was significantly more equipped for an unprecedented resistance. Leading by example, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rallied a large number of fervent men of the fighting age to sign up for the frontlines as well. 

Consequently, Russia’s endeavors to attack the country on three fronts; Kyiv in the North, Kharkiv in the northeast, and Kherson in the south, has intensified. Reportedly (and rather unexpectedly), hundreds (some reporting thousands) of Russian soldiers have been killed along with scores of the Ukrainian military and civilian casualties, the numbers of which are very hard to verify given the persisting violence. 

At face value, Russia still has an upper hand in this conflict with its mammoth military dominance. The most the west can do is supply aid and ammunition, which it has been providing relentlessly. Ultimately, the deciding factor boils down to the fight that Ukraine can put up with the resources at its disposal. This is exactly what Ukraine seems to be doing. 

Militarily, Ukraine has scant chances of victory. Thus, the only way forward is to fortify the resistance that would prolong this war, and inflict an endless number of economic repercussions on Russia. This strategy would be effective for a variety of reasons. 

Firstly, the sanctions announced by the west are expected to apply immense pressure on the Russian economy. As a punitive measure, the United Kingdom, United States, and European Union have cut off major Russian banks from financial markets in the west, thereby prohibiting dealings with the central bank, state-owned investment funds, and the finance ministry. These restrictions have sent the ruble crashing for Russia. The country’s vast foreign reserves of $630 billion, accrued from soaring oil and gas prices are also under threat, given that a lot of this money is stored in western currencies like the dollar, euro, and pound. 

Secondly, while the reserves are large enough for one to think that Russia would withstand the effect of sanctions, it is noteworthy that the Russian economy has already been hit by sanctions post-2014. Even though these sanctions did not have as much impact as was intended owing to Russia’s favorable domestic financial systems, they did shrink the economy to an extent. 

Third, Ukraine’s sternness is expected to cost Russia even more money than the previously estimated billions of dollars, which was already a hefty amount to expend on a war in pursuit of an unclear and vaguely defined end goal. Moreover, Russia has spent billions of dollars on wars in the middle east, wars that are far from concluding and constitute recurring expenditures. As a result of its deep involvement, Russia cannot abruptly withdraw from these wars. 

Russia’s military might does not overpower the economic pressures from all quarters. Although this cannot be asserted with surety, a long, resource-depleting war in Ukraine, in addition to the aforementioned factors could compel the country to change its course. Interestingly, these economic costs for Russia will not end if it can capture the whole country, topple the Ukrainian government, and establish a pro-Russia regime (in case this is what Russia wants). This scenario could give way to a long-drawn insurgency fighting that would entail more costs for Russia in the long term.  

While these recent happenings could technically be construed as a war between Russia and the West, the military exchanges will happen only between Russia and Ukraine. Unless Russia decides to attack any of the NATO powers, which would legally oblige the west to engage militarily, Ukraine, with only western help, has to fight a war that has always been way beyond its reach. Strategically, it has to devise ways to increasingly impose costs on Russia as a discouraging factor from wreaking further havoc. 

Saaransh Mishra is a Research Associate with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and writes on foreign policy matters.

Picture Credits: PA Media

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