Observations of an expat: Amazing Ukraine

It is incredible what the Ukrainian army has achieved. If NATO answers the Ukrainian foreign minister’s call for “weapons, weapons and weapons” then Vladimir Putin is almost certain to suffer the most humiliating of humiliating defeats.

A few facts and figures: Ukraine’s defence budget is $5.4 billion. Russia’s is $61.7 billion. Russia has five times as many active military personnel as Ukraine; six times as many tanks and artillery, four times as many armoured vehicles; 13 times as many aircraft and more than ten times as many ships.

The line-up in Ukraine resembles the Biblical David and Goliath tale and with the same result.

The reason is that wars are not always decided on the simple issue of numbers and types of guns. There are any number of other unquantifiable factors that are thrown into the messy mix and can determine the outcome of battle.

For a start there is the undeniable question of justice. Right v. wrong. Good v. Evil. There is no doubt that in the opinion of the overwhelming proportion of the world’s population that Ukraine stands on right side of the equation and Russia on the wrong.

That has been underscored by this week’s vote in New York to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Commission by a shattering majority of 93 votes to 24 with 58 abstentions. To remove a permanent member of the Security Council from an important UN body is a major international political statement which must reinforce the resolve of every Ukrainian fighter preparing to repel the anticipated Russian offensive in the East.

The Ukrainian army also have home ground advantage. They have an intimate knowledge of every nook and cranny of their country. The population supports them (contrary to Kremlin reports) and they enjoy the moral imperative of defending their country, homes and families from what has been exposed as an army of ruthless killers.

There are other slightly more quantifiable factors. The Ukrainian military was a mess in 2014 when the Russians annexed Crimea and sent their “little green men” into the Donbass Region. It was corrupt, ill-equipped and poorly-trained. In the intervening eight years, the government has significantly curbed corruption. Training, weapons and money have been provided primarily by Washington and London and the fighting in Eastern Ukraine has forged a battle-hardened predominantly professional army.

The Russian army has five times as many soldiers, but it is riddled with corruption and is based on a conscript force which serves for only a year. The Russians have two drafts a year: One in the spring between 1 April and 15 July and another in the autumn/winter which stretches from 1 October to the 31st of December. Roughly 1.2 million men between the ages of 18 and 27 register for the draft and about 250,000 are called up for active service every year. This year the spring call-up was moved forward a month because of the Ukraine war.

Russian conscripts receive one to two months basic training and are not supposed to be sent into combat until they have had four months total training, although there are reports of conscripts being rushed into the Ukrainian frontline because of high casualties. On paper, Russia has an additional two million-strong reserve force, but only about 10,000 are active reserves who receive regular monthly training.

Putin also has access to a small but effective group of mercenaries called the Wagner Group. According to Western intelligence, about 1,000 of these mercenaries are currently operating in Ukraine. They are funded by the GRU, Russian military intelligence. Mercenaries are also being recruited from Syria and Libya, but their usefulness has been discounted by Western military experts.

The Kremlin can mobilise quickly by declaring martial law. On 22 February the Russian Duma passed a law making it mandatory for every man of military age to report to their local military commissar without receiving a conscription notice if the Kremlin announces martial law. Dodging the draft is a felony with a two-year jail sentence attached.

Russia’s one big advantage is weaponry. It has a massive arsenal of cruise missiles, hypersonic missiles, tanks, ships, planes … and, of course, chemical and nuclear weapons. But so far they have proved inept at utilising these weapons against a poorly armed and numerically inferior force.

NATO has the weapons to challenge the Russians on-paper superior arsenal. Ukraine has proven itself willing and able to use them.


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • This article leaves out rather a lot. Since 2014 Ukraine’s military has been extensively re-equipped with the latest NATO hardware and most of it has had NATO training so that by the start of this year it was already thoroughly modernised and fully interoperable with NATO. Moreover, since hostilities began, new hardware has poured in (well over $1 billion/week according to some but I don’t think anyone really knows). So, the “If NATO answers etc.” of the second sentence is redundant – NATO has answered from the off.

    In that context the better scale comparison is not Ukraine vs Russia but US+ EU+UK vs Russia which is about 25:1.

    Russia sees this (rightly IMO) as an existential crisis so if it’s defeated militarily, it will turn to ‘Plan B’. That might be to (a) go nuclear (unlikely IMO), or (b) turn off the gas and oil and, while we can do something about that in time, we don’t have time.

    Either way Europe will be destroyed as supply chains collapse (are already collapsing in fact) for lack of energy and other raw materials. For instance, the combined effect of expensive diesel (tractors etc) plus disrupted fertiliser supply causing will cause catastrophic declines in yield on farms worldwide. I think it likely that a global famine (including in Europe) is already baked in unless there is an outbreak of sanity in the next week or so.

  • Tom Seelye Arms 9th Apr '22 - 2:02pm

    @Gordon: I suggest you re-read my piece and take note of the following sentence:
    .” Training, weapons and money have been provided primarily by Washington and London and the fighting in Eastern Ukraine has forged a battle-hardened predominantly professional army.”

  • In truth Russia was able to take over Crimea with virtually no resistance. Most of the Ukranian military stationed in the peninsula were paid off to switch sides and much of the majority ethnic Russian population seem content with the outcome.
    The Donbass was a little different with separatists (supported by Russian militias) organising what became an armed revolt against the newly elected Kyiv government. The fighting in the Donbass has been ongoing for 8 years with a heavy toll on the civilian population there, particularly in the separatist areas.
    I find it strange that Putin did not simply send his military to suppress the fighting in the Donbass until the Minsk agreement was implemented. I expect this would have caused little more than grumbling among Western powers and some diplomatic wrangling with little in the way of additional sanctions while ensuring that Ukraine with a frozen conflict would never be accepted by Nato.
    There appear to be two explanations for the attempt at a full scale invasion of Ukraine aimed at toppling the Kyiv government and replacing it with a puppet regime.
    The first is that Putin has gone mad and believes his own megalomaniac rantings about Ukraine not being a real country but part of the greater Russian empire. The second more plausible explanation is the 2010 discovery of vast oil and gas deposits in the area around Kramatorsk in the Donbass.
    When wars come down the control of natural resources like oil and gas, we can at least cut through all the propaganda or realist arguments around Eu or Nato expansion and understand what is going on and why.

  • Chris Moore 9th Apr '22 - 2:55pm

    @Gordon: You say, Russia sees this as an “existential crisis”. And you agree.

    Firstly, Russia’s existence is in no way threatened.
    Secondly, you seem to be very confused: it is Ukraine’s existence as an independent state that was threatened.

    Fortunately, the Russians have been rebuffed by the unexpected resistance. So hopefully Ukraine will continue as an independent state, though with chunks of the country robbed by Russia.

    Your equation of US + EU + UK = 25 × Russia is simplistic and absurd. Neither US UK nor EU are fighting Russia. Nor Japan for that matter. They are supplying arms and intelligence, thankfully.

    You paint an apocalyptic and grossly exaggerated picture of the consequences of continuing resistance to Russia.

    Europe will muddle through.

  • nvelope2003 9th Apr '22 - 3:24pm

    In a recent speech former Russian President and Putin ally, Dmitry Medvedev, stated that Russia should build an open Eurasia extending from Portugal to Vladivostock so I was not far wrong in stating that they would not be content until Russian power had reached the West of Ireland. The Russian media have also stated that the majority of Ukrainians are infected by Nazi ideology and that because they are complicit and this cannot simply be blamed on their Government, these people need to be liquidated. Not surprisingly Ukrainians are unable to accept this without fighting back. There is a risk that this could lead to all out war but what would our descendants say if we let Russia win. Russia is big because it uses every opportunity to extend its rule by attacking and conquering its neighbours using the most brutal and cruel methods of war as shown in Chechenia and also in Syria. They claim that peace will only come when they have power but maybe not everyone would wish to live in such a country.

  • Propaganda is a tool of war and this conflict is no different. It is being deployed extensively by both sides in the so called ‘information war’. It is almost impossible to know when Russia is stating a factual position and when they are engaging in propaganda.
    In the UK we know with a high degree of certainty that Russian lied about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Skripals. The same can be said about the invasion of Crimea and downing of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 over the Donbass. Russian diplomats seem to consider it their duty to vigorously deny any attribution of wrongdoing regardless of the evidence. When the Kremlin spokesman says that no Russian soldier has harmed a single civilian this is an obvious lie. Both the Russian and Ukrainian military have inflicted widespread harm on civilians in the fighting in Mariupol and elsewhere. Human rights watch and Amnesty International have been documenting war crimes on all sides since 2014. The ICC published a report in 2020 https://www.icc-cpi.int/ukraine finding that “there was a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed” in the 2014 Euromaidan protests and civil unrest, the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. He stated that the “alleged crimes identified would be admissible” and that there was “a reasonable basis for investigation.”
    The victims of this war just want it to be over and for the two governments to agree a basis for peaceful co-existence. Let’s listen to their voices and do all we can to bring an end to their suffering.

  • Joe Bourke 9th Apr ’22 – 4:14pm:
    Russian diplomats seem to consider it their duty to vigorously deny any attribution of wrongdoing regardless of the evidence.

    As Sir Henry Wotton, a sixteenth-century English diplomat, is oft quoted as saying: “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

  • I suggest people will find it useful to watch political scientist Professor John Mearsheimer’s 2015 lecture on the Ukraine. For a talk given so long ago it’s astonishingly prescient, the money quote (at 44 minutes) being, “What’s going on here is that the West is leading the Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked…”


    The lecture itself is circa 45 minutes. It’s preceded by a short introduction and followed by lengthy questions.

  • Chris Moore 10th Apr '22 - 8:47am

    Mearshimer also argued strongly against Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons in 1994, as he believed they were a deterrent to possible Russian aggression.

    However, he’s also on record as saying Russia would never be so stupid as to invade Ukraine as they would themselves get “wrecked”.

    Ukrainians are an independent state, Gordon. The majority there want democracy and closer relations with the West. That is their right. Why would they want to be part of an awful blood-soaked mafia state.

  • nvelope2003 10th Apr '22 - 8:54am

    Ukraine is an independent sovereign state which has been attacked by its much bigger neighbour. Are we supposed to let Russia do as it pleases?

  • Gordon,

    John Mearsheimer uses the Thucidean realist argument that “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” to explain that this is the way the world is regardless of how much we might wish it were otherwise.
    He argues that balance of power geopolitics is the natural state of affairs and it cannot be otherwise i.e. that Liberal Internationalism or a rules based order in foreign affairs (as opposed to domestic affairs) is a pipe dream.
    Two basic tenets of Liberalism are democracy and the right of national self-determination.
    If we accept Mearsheimer’s argument than we must also accept the Roman dictum “If you want peace, prepare for war”.
    Liberal democracy requires nation states that seek self-determination to be able to defend their territory against greater powers in alliance with other states that share the same democratic principles.
    Without such an alliance, Ukraine was always going to eventually be where it finds itself today, just as it has been throughout much of its history. That is why its people had the aspiration of joining the Nato alliance as other former soviet states have.
    It’s only recourse now is to seek a military victory or stalemate that will enable it maintain its sovereignty and an alliance with nation states that can provide a guarantee of its territorial integrity and right to self-determination.

  • Gordon writes above “Europe will be destroyed as supply chains collapse (are already collapsing in fact) for lack of energy and other raw materials. For instance, the combined effect of expensive diesel (tractors etc) plus disrupted fertiliser supply causing will cause catastrophic declines in yield on farms worldwide. I think it likely that a global famine (including in Europe) is already baked in unless there is an outbreak of sanity in the next week or so.”
    What sanity is though is not quite explained – presumably it is a negotiated peace settlement with Russia that leaves Ukraine intact and in charge of their own future.
    A Supreme Court judge warns that unmanned drones will create an Orwellian future. A professor of history at Yale, advises, “To understand Putin, read Orwell”
    This I think is where John Mearsheimer is right. We have arrived inexorably at a multi-polar world very similar to the Eurasian and East Asian spheres envisioned by Orwell. International relations will have to adjust to that reality just as the climate change crisis is reaching a tipping point.

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Apr '22 - 3:18pm

    Joe Bourke
    Worth noting that “Gordon” predicted on 23 Feb that “Putin is by far the best strategist currently on the World stage and is going to win this struggle with few shots being fired.” I don’t know whether they’re a Moscow stooge or just an opinionated criterion, but until they acknowledge that they completely misread (or misrepresented) the situation mere hours before the Russian invasion began, it’s probably not worth wasting any time on their “predictions”.

  • Yogi Berra’s quip comes to mind “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
    Sergej Sumlenny is a Russian-born journalist and political scientist who predicts that, within 3-5 years, Russia will break up into a group of independent states. He argues that Russia’s many ethnic states are perfectly poised for secession, some with long histories of agitation and others with a newfound resentment of Moscow in light of the war How the war could lead to the break up of Russia

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Apr ’22 – 3:18pm:
    Worth noting that “Gordon” predicted on 23 Feb that “Putin is by far the best strategist currently on the World stage and is going to win this struggle with few shots being fired.”


    ‘Gordon 9th Jan ’22’:
    “Putin has gradually brought order to the ensuing chaos. […] Military pride and effectiveness have been restored to the point that some experts (including some in the US forces) now consider it is more than a match for the vastly bigger US military.”

    “…the best way to think of Putin is to see him as a modern-day Czar. […] The judgement of history will I think put him among the greatest of the Czars.”

    ‘Gordon 24th Jan ’22’:
    “For several weeks the media has been full of stories about Russia threatening to invade Ukraine… by the end of January… before the ground thaws to mud… whenever. But evidence for any of this is negligible.”

    ‘Gordon 25th Jan ’22’:
    “In fact, it turns out Putin isn’t even trying. The Moon of Alabama blog has dug deep into the evidence for war plans only to discover that there are none – at least not on the Russian side.”

    ‘Gordon 20th Feb ’22’:
    “…Russian forces are configured and equipped for defence, not offense.”

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Apr ’22 – 3:18pm:
    …until they acknowledge that they completely misread (or misrepresented) the situation […] it’s probably not worth wasting any time on their “predictions”.

    If only such scepticism was applied to predictions made in other spheres with a similar track record.

  • When it comes to apocalyptic predictions it is de rigeur to check what Nostradamus had to say on the subject and lo and behold someone has Nostradamus, Ukraine, and WWIII
    “Almost 500 years ago, the French prophet Michel de Nostradamus suggested that WWIII might start in Ukraine. Though his focus was on the decline and negligence of Western Europe and an invasion of Muslims into that region, he also clearly describes Russian actions, and part of his Quatrain 3:95 says:

    “The Moorish law shall be on decline,
    After it, another one more seducing,
    Boristhenes (Dnieper) shall be the first to fall”

  • Malcolm Todd 12th Apr '22 - 12:34pm

    Thanks for pulling out all the other refs! I remembered the “Moon of Alabama” one – so authoritatively dismissing the whole story of impending invasion! – but didn’t look far enough back for it. (I note that that site continues to push Russian propaganda over Ukraine, apparently undismayed.)

    “If only such scepticism was applied to predictions made in other spheres with a similar track record.”
    Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure you’re referring to your conviction that anything less than complete immediate economic collapse disproves all predictions of economic harm from leaving the EU … I do agree with you on the principle here!

  • Sorry for delayed response – we have guests staying so I have little time.

    Chris Moore – [Mearsheimer is] also on record as saying Russia would never be so stupid as to invade Ukraine as they would themselves get “wrecked”.

    Yes, Mearsheimer is right – that’s entirely possible and may explain why Russia didn’t intervene openly in support of the Donetsk/Lugansk separatists. And, as I said earlier, Europe and others may also get wrecked to some extent.

    I’m not sure what point you are trying to make about Ukraine as an independent state. Is anyone arguing to the contrary? I can though understand that many in Donetsk & Lugansk are upset about the Maidan coup and wish to secede – we have our own independence movements in the UK for much less cause (thankfully far better handled).

  • Jeff – I confess I was wrong about the course of a possible war. I hugely underestimated the extent to which Ukraine had built up its military and how much help it had had from the NATO powers.

    But arms spending is an odd policy choice for one of the poorer countries in Europe trying to recover from the Soviet misadventure when Russia would have been content with a non-aligned status which would have freed budget for more socially-useful purposes.

    In the dying days of Gorbachev’s USSR, I took a ‘holiday’ in Russia because I wanted to see it before it vanished. It was unspeakably awful in many, many ways. Eg. on the Moscow underground young conscripts in army uniform tried to sell me their hats, belts etc. as souvenirs. In the Yeltsin years some things got better but oligarchs ran things. So, yes, Putin deserves credit for restoring some normality.
    Did he do that entirely legally? No.
    Is it a normal democracy? No.
    Is the process complete? Nowhere near.
    Is he on the right track? Only VERY partially.
    But desperate times require desperate measures and we seem happy to deal with and arm other unsavoury regimes.

    Also, a week is a long time in politics. A month is an age.

  • I should perhaps try to explain where I am coming from.

    I am astonished how little attempt our media and politicians have made to understand Russia’s position. It is mostly presented as a malevolent force. It’s a mess certainly but that’s not unique – so are lots of other countries, among them Ukraine which is very, very far from a proper democracy.

    What I think is going on is that Russia remains, however imperfect, a great power by most definitions. And that is unacceptable to the US NeoCons who have run US foreign policy for many years irrespective of who is in the White House.

    Their record is dreadful with country after country invaded and wrecked to no useful purpose. Yet they survive – probably because they are lavishly supported by the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) of which Eisenhower warned. The greater the disasters their policies create, the more the MIC profits. Hence, the “Rules-based International Order” is a circumlocution for the US Empire’s orders (to use 19th century terminology).


    In Orwell’s 1984, a daily “two minutes hate” directed at enemies of the state was mandatory for everyone. We seem to have, ahem, ‘improved’ on that with “24/7 hate” for Russia. How is that a good thing?

  • There was no ’24/7 hate for Russia’ until they invaded Ukraine. Wealthy/powerful Brits were happy to do business with Russia, while ordinary folk had few, if any thoughts, on the topic.
    Russia’s stated position (‘threat of Nato expansion’ etc) has been widely reported.
    And the fact other countries are a mess (and Ukraine was far from perfect) does not excuse what has been done over the past few weeks.
    The ‘attempts to understand’ came before the invasion, when politicians including the French president tried to negotiate with Putin to avert a war.

  • We should listen carefully to those Russians with inside knowledge of the Putin regime.
    Alexander Litvinenko and several other FSB officers publicly accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko wrote two books, wherein he accused the Russian secret services of staging the Russian apartment bombings in 1999 and other acts of terrorism in an effort to bring Vladimir Putin to power. He also accused Putin of ordering the assassination of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. Litvinenko was assassinated in 2006. Berezovsky was found dead in his home in 2013.
    Opposition politician Boris Nemstov was shot dead in Moscow in 2015. Alexi Navalny was first poisoned and then jailed. Today Vladamir Kara-Murza has been arrested. All of them have been trying to warn about Putin for years as has Garry Kasparov, Bill Browder and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
    All US presidents from Bush to Biden have tried to accommodate Putin and integrate Russia with the West. Angela Merkel even bet Germany’s energy security on the relationship. All to no avail. The last thing Biden needs is another conflict after the debacle of Afghanistan.
    As Finland and Sweden contemplate Nato membership the die is set for Europe and Russia, regardless of the direction of US foreign policy.

  • nvelope2003 13th Apr '22 - 2:31pm

    Russia is a huge state, the largest in the world. Those nations to its West are Parliamentary Democracies living in varying degrees of fear at what their giant neighbour will do in the light of its ruler’s stated opinions so they have or are about to join Nato. Russia is not a democracy as we understand it. Its rulers are descendants of Norsemen, the Vikings (pirates) and like the ones who conquered England and Normandy etc they adopted the local language and ruled their subjects harshly and without mercy.
    When they overthrew the Romanovs they adopted Communism to maintain their power and when they realised it didn’t work they abandoned it for capitalism to make themselves even richer. Their subjects seem unable to see any benefits in democracy as they only know what they have because they are brainwashed.
    Some Western nations seem to be interested in the Russian way. Madame Le Pen has wide support because she shares Putin’s views and could soon be President of France so we must be on our guard if she leaves Nato because that can only mean she wants to ally with Russia.
    This is a life and death struggle for the Western way of life as Putin has made clear. The present economic difficulties are making him grow in confidence that he will win if people do not understand this.

  • History is full of examples of smaller nations defeating supposed greater powers. Russia/USSR throughout its history has always picked on smaller weaker nations and has often been greatly embarrassed. Ukraine today, Finland in the Winter War, and many others in the past.

    Russia is no longer a great power never mind a superpower and it is certainly not a democracy, yet many today do not realise it including Russians because many believe and buy into the hype. Russia is a dictatorship with the illusion of democracy. The more things change in Russia the more they stay the same.

    Russia for many years has used propaganda to tell us about its latest and greatest weapons. A strong nation doesn’t do this. They have very much been using Sun Tzu to appear strong when they are weak. The last two months have demonstrated just how poor the Russian military actually is despite their attempts to modernise. They are a complete laughing stock and have now moved on to phase two of losing badly.

    Why does anyone believe we need to understand Russia when their actions have been clear for everyone to see and their excuses for their actions are pathetic and constantly evolving? If a burglar comes into your house do you make him a cup of tea and try to understand his actions? What if he comes at you or your family with a knife?

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