Subscriber OnlyEurope

Can Ukraine triumph over the Russian Goliath?

Russia deploying tactical strategy refined in Syria with devastating effect, say experts

On paper, Russia’s overwhelming military superiority suggests Ukraine’s survival as an independent state appear hopeless.

Russia's army is ranked second in the world; Ukraine's, 22nd. Russia's army comprises 900,000 troops; Ukraine's 196,000. A report by the European Parliament this month says Russia has 15,857 armoured vehicles; Ukraine 3,309. The ratio for aircraft is even more unfavourable, with 1,391 Russian warplanes to Ukraine's 132.

Can little David possibly prevail against brutal Goliath?

“Ukraine is not so little,” says Taras Ishchyk, a military spokesman for western Ukraine. Ishchyk says the Ukrainian army has been ramped up to more than 250,000, and that more than 100,000 have joined the territorial defence forces. In terms of square kilometres, Ukraine is “the biggest country in Europe”, he says, though it is not a member of the European Union.

“This is a psychological war,” Ishchyk continues. “They don’t know why they are fighting; we know what we are fighting for. They may have more weapons, but we are killing their tanks and planes because we are more motivated”.

International support, whether moral, humanitarian or military, is also a force multiplier for Ukraine. "Protests around the world put pressure on governments," Ishchyk says. He believes the EU and Nato should be willing to integrate Ukraine. "We are paying in blood for EU membership . . . We have greater experience in fighting Russia than any Nato member."

But regardless of Ukraine's fighting spirit, "if Russia wanted to, they could unleash hell in Ukraine and bring in such overwhelming force that there would be no chance for the Ukrainians in a straight-up fight", says Marc Garlasco, military analyst for the Dutch anti-war group PAX for Peace.

War crimes

Garlasco was in charge of high-value targeting for the Pentagon in the 2003 Iraq war. He later advised the United Nations commission that investigated war crimes in Syria, and will testify on Wednesday before a US House foreign affairs subcommittee regarding evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

“Russia destroyed Syrian towns by mass artillery fire, trying to squeeze the civilian population and force them into submission,” Garlasco says.

“That is what we see happening in Ukraine right now. The Russian playbook from Syria has been exported to Ukraine. I am dumbfounded that everyone is all of a sudden slackjawed that the Russians are bombing hospitals in Ukraine,” the analyst continues, noting that Physicians for Human Rights documented 244 Russian attacks on hospitals in Syria. “Direct targeting of civilians. Siege tactics. I am very concerned that we are going to see the Russians surround Kyiv and starve the population out. Starvation is a war crime, but the Russians did that time and again in Syria.”

Media attention has focused on the grisly effects of thermobaric weapons and reports that Russia has used them in Ukraine. They are also known as fuel-air explosives or vacuum bombs, and were employed by the US in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and by the Russians in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria.

In a thermobaric weapon, highly explosive fuel is detonated to create a blast wave that destroys structures, but also sucks the air from human lungs, leading to a massive embolism. “Your internal organs are basically turned to jelly,” says Garlasco.

The British government says Russia has already used thermobaric weapons in Ukraine. Ishchyk says they have been dropped several times on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city.

So far, most of the destruction and casualties have been caused by old-fashioned artillery, rockets and multiple rocket launchers, with increasing use of aerial bombardment, such as the attack on the Yavoriv base near Poland that killed 35 people on Sunday.

“We all get into the sexy, scary type of weapons that are out there,” says Garlasco. “But the reality is most people in Ukraine right now are dying from high-explosive weapons: artillery rockets, tube artillery, aerial bombs and cluster bombs.”

The Russians’ use of cluster bombs in Ukraine has been well documented, including by the Bellingcat investigative website. Cluster bombs are sub-munitions released from larger bombs to cover a very large area. Because they do not discriminate between civilians and military, their use in populated areas is a violation of the laws of war. Many do not explode, creating minefields that maim and kill civilians for years to come.

The Russian military has posted videos of its most modern fighter bomber, the Sukhoi SU-34, taking off for Ukraine, armed with OFZAB-500 high explosive incendiary fragmentation bombs. A video circulating on the internet shows an unexploded OFZAB-500, oval-shaped, with fins, being pulled from the wreckage of a building in Chernihiv.

Russia has also fired some Kalibr cruise missiles – their equivalent of a US Tomahawk – and Iskander missiles, which carry a powerful warhead and have a range of 500km.

Russian artillery are named after flowers: the 203mm Peony, and the 152mm Hyacinth and Acacia howitzers. Their multiple rocket launchers are called Grads (hail), Smerch (tornado) and Uragan (hurricane).

Ukraine retains Soviet-era multiple rocket launchers and howitzers. Its pilots trained on MiG 29 fighter aircraft, like those it still hopes to obtain from Poland, despite a US veto. Like the Russians, Ukrainian ground troops are armed with AK 74 Kalashnikov assault rifles.

US-made weapons

The Ukrainians have received thousands of US-made Stinger shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles, and Javelin anti-tank missiles. Stingers are effective against helicopters, but are little use against high altitude aircraft. Germany and the Netherlands have given Ukraine state of the art Panzerfaust 3 anti-armour weapons, while France and Italy are sending Milan missiles.

Russia's air superiority is Ukraine's greatest vulnerability, hence the constant plea to "close the sky" with a no-fly zone. Unlike Georgia in 2008, Ukraine does not possess an adequate air defence system. Garlasco says it would take months for Ukrainians to be taught to use a Patriot missile system, and that a better option is to transfer Soviet-made S-300 anti-aircraft batteries from Nato countries.

Although Russia perpetrated cyberattacks against Ukraine in the run-up to the war, no large scale cyberattacks have occurred since February 24th. Garlasco says the ILG or Intel Loss Gain dilemma means that enemy forces often have more to gain from monitoring open communications than from destroying a network. The greatest cyber concern would be a Russian attack on Scada (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems which run computerised infrastructure.

Despite fears of Russian use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, Garlasco notes that in the past Russia has always refrained from using weapons of mass destruction in war, which it knows would be a red line for the US.

There can be no military solution to the war in Ukraine, Garlasco stresses. “Every day Ukraine holds out against the Russians is a victory for them. Every day they exact a massive toll on Russia. But the population is bearing the brunt and the civilians are being killed and injured at a very high rate.”

The International Criminal Court dispatched an advance assessment team to Ukraine on March 4th and the UN has created a commission of inquiry. The German use of universal jurisdiction to convict Syrian war criminals creates a precedent.

"I would certainly hope that Vladimir Putin is never going to be able to travel outside Russia again for fear of an indictment," Garlasco says. "His commanders on the ground should be put on notice that if you commit war crimes and you ever leave Russia, we are going to pick you up and put you on trial."

Constantin Sigov, a philosophy professor and the director of the European human sciences research centre at the University of Kyiv, says he fully expects Russia to be stripped of its seat on the UN Security Council. "On the political level, Putin has already lost the war. He may still cause the death of many Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians. But this military madness is the death throe of his regime."