As a historical and cultural part of the Eastern Slavic civilisation, Ukraine’s desperate efforts to disentangle itself from Russia’s sphere of influence were doomed to raise tensions in the region. When Russia eventually invaded the country to reassert its dominance in the February of 2022, Ukraine’s geographic and military vulnerabilities vis-à-vis its larger neighbour became painfully apparent.
The Breadbasket Country
Ukraine, one of the largest agricultural producers in the world, is predictably a very flat country, although most of its territory can be classified as high lands. In the south and east of the country lies the infamous steppes that is the homeland of the Cossacks. Unfortunately, there are no notable mountain ranges on the Russo-Ukrainian border. Although the country is neatly divided into two by the enormous Dnieper river, Russia can evade this obstacle relatively easily by requesting military passage from Ukraine’s northern neighbour, the Russian ally/satellite state of Belarus. This region is known as the Pinsk Marshes and posed a great hinderance to military operations in the past. Given the recent construction of multiple highways through the area as well as the timing of the Russian invasion in late-winter, this swampland is unlikely to pose a decisive impediment to Russian logistics.
Bullies and Rebels
At first glance, it might seem that Russia surrounds only a third of Ukraine’s national borders, yet this will be a misleading picture in 2022. In reality, only relatively small portions of Ukraine’s territory meet with any ally state, namely Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, all in the southwestern extremities of the nation. In the eastern Donbas region, two pro-Russian states have already declared their independence from Kiev, while the Crimean Peninsula in the southeast is directly governed by the Russian Federation. The population in the rest of eastern Ukraine, as well as parts of Odessa, is often hostile to the central government, which is an easy weakness for Russia to exploit.
Furthermore, Ukraine’s only region that borders Slovakia and Hungary has also shown strong separatist tendencies for decades. In addition, Ukraine’s entire northern confines are encompassed by Belarussian territory, not to mention the fact that much of the Moldovan frontier is controlled by the autonomous Russian ally state of Transnistria. In practice, Ukraine was already badly surrounded – almost encircled, in fact, – by Russia and its close allies by the early-2020s, while the E.U. and NATO were debating whether to admit the nascent nation into their embracing fold.
A Barking Dog?
A military comparison of Ukraine and Russia is not as simple as it might seem. Although both countries succeeded the Soviet Union in 1991, their armed forces have since moved in very different directions. The sheer difference in size and number of arms defies comparison. Russia has 15 times the number of attack helicopters, 23 times more fighter planes, 5 times more tanks, and 16 times more warships than its southern neighbour. Over the past eight years (since the 2014 crisis), Ukraine has tried desperately to improve its armed forces – receiving 2.5 $ billion from the United States alone, but the Russian modernisation efforts seem to outpace the Ukrainian efforts.
In the end, assuming Napoleon’s exclamations to be true, morale accounts for three-fourths of the factors in a conflict. Here, Russia has a clear advantage, having accumulated vast experience in countries ranging from Syria to Georgia since 2008, with a track record of success. On the other hand, the Ukrainian ground forces have suffered demoralising drawbacks in the few wars that they have fought over the last three decades.