World·CBC Investigates

Ukraine has will, but Russia has might: How their military forces match up

Russia's military is generally considered to be the second-most powerful in the world, behind the United States. Ukraine ranks 22nd. That power imbalance that is on stark display as Vladimir Putin's forces speed towards Kyiv.

Advantages in troop strength, weaponry and technology power the Russian invasion

Members of the Territorial Defence Forces of Ukraine receive weapons to defend the city of Kyiv, on Feb. 25, 2022. (Mikhail Palinchak/Reuters)

By any estimation, the battle for Ukraine was never going to be a fair fight.

The invading Russian Federation commands the world's second-most powerful military, behind only the United States, having spent an estimated $61.7 billion US on defence in 2020, according to figures compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

Ukraine spent a tenth of that, just $5.9 billion US.

And that disparity shows in almost every possible comparison.

  • Russia has almost 900,000 active military personnel to draw on in its war of aggression, versus Ukraine's standing military of around 200,000. 
  • Ukraine has vastly fewer attacking aircraft — 146 versus Russia's 1,328 — and helicopters; just 42 versus 478. 
  • The Russian tanks rumbling towards the capital, Kyiv, are part of an overall armoured corps of 31,000 vehicles, compared to Ukraine's 5,000.
  • The Russian Navy boasts 605 vessels, including 70 submarines, that can be deployed in the Black Sea, off the Ukrainian coast. While the Ukrainian fleet has just 38 ships, and no submarines. 

The lopsided list goes on and on.

"The Russian army is powerful, there's no doubt about it, far more powerful than that of Ukraine," said retired Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, former Chief of Land Staff for the Canadian Armed Forces.

"The Russians enjoy a vast technological advantage, in terms of quality, in terms of training time — which gives you experience on the various machines of war — and in terms of numbers." 

A Ukrainian soldier sits injured after crossing fire inside the city of Kyiv on Feb. 25, 2022. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

Russian advantages that will be all but insurmountable for Ukrainian defenders — at least in the initial stage of the war, said Leslie. But pacifying the country's 44 million people may end up being a far more daunting task for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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"Mr. Putin is going to have to go into the cities and he's going to have to occupy Ukraine for years against a bitter, vengeful population who have tasted freedom," Leslie predicts. "And they are not going to forget, and they're not going to allow the Russians to have either an easy occupation, or to stay very long." 

Don't underestimate the will of the Ukrainian people

Ukraine's leaders seem to have already moved on to that next fight. Russia's formal military reserve force is estimated to be as high as two million troops. But the Ukrainians are now busy trying to augment their core of 900,000 call-ups, having now ordered all men between 18 and 60 to remain in the country, and arming anyone who is willing to pick up a gun. 

On Friday, former President Petro Poroshenko was on the streets of Kyiv, brandishing an AK-47 and boasting of the country's strength in numbers.

"This is the long line of the people who want to enlist in the battalion, but we don't have enough arms ... they are normal, ordinary people [who] sometimes [have] never been in the army, staying in line now to join us," Poroshenko told CNN. 

"Putin never will catch Ukraine despite how many soldiers he has, how many missiles he has, how many nuclear weapons he has. We Ukrainian are free people with a great European future."

WATCH | NATO to provide more weapons to Ukraine:

NATO announces more weapons, air defence systems for Ukraine

2 years ago
Duration 28:19
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that the alliance will provide more aid and weapons to Ukraine, including air defence systems, while also warning Russia that it will pay a severe price for years to come.

Hanna Maliar, Ukraine's deputy defence minister, took to Facebook Friday to urge citizens to resist Russian forces any way they can, even with homemade weapons. The plea apparently had an impact, as online searches for Molotov cocktail recipes reportedly surged in the capital. 

The will of the Ukrainian people to resist should not be underestimated, said Ihor Kozak, a former Canadian Forces officer who has been training and advising the military in his native Ukraine since 2014. 

"Ukrainians now are fighting for their freedom, for their families, for their homeland," said Kozak. "The morale is very, very high. And I think that's going to be a decisive factor in this war."

Nor should anyone doubt the professionalism of its outgunned, but well-trained, military, added Kozak.

Eight years ago, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea and supporting a separatist uprising in the Donbas region, the country's military was almost non-existent.  

"There was really no money spent, no training, no modern weapons, no ammunition. So people who went to fight were the young volunteers, and not-so-young volunteers from the Maidan revolution, often in running shoes, with obsolete weapons," Kozak recalled. 

What Ukraine needs is weaponry

All that has changed with the establishment of a modern fighting force, trained to NATO standards by Western advisors, including members of Canada's military. Now, what Ukraine desperately needs isn't so much manpower, as weaponry. 

"They need more [anti-tank] javelins, more [anti-aircraft] stingers, more ammunition, more weapons so they can defend themselves and can defend us. So I would strongly encourage the government of Canada and the Western leaders to do that now before it's too late," said Kozak. 

A tall request as Russia makes rapid inroads, with its troops already on the streets of Kyiv.

All the more so considering that Ukraine's military ranks as the 22nd-most powerful in the world — one spot ahead of Canada at number 23.

PHOTOS | WARNING: This photo gallery contains graphic images:


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.