As tensions rise ahead of Friday's crunch talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the Ukraine crisis, memories of the Russian army swiftly overpowering the Ukrainian military during the 2014 Crimean annexation have resurfaced. But Ukraine has significantly improved its defence capabilities - with more than a little help from NATO countries.
With US President Joe Biden on Thursday making it "absolutely clear" that any entry of Russian troops into Ukraine is "an invasion", Washington has kept up the pressure, warning Moscow of a "severe" response.
Britain meanwhile added more concrete pressure this week when it announced that it was sending Ukraine military equipment, mostly short-range antitank missiles for self-defence.
Ukrainian authorities, for their part, are sounding increasingly urgent alarms since Russia deployed around 100,000 troops, according to US estimates, along its eastern border.
On Wednesday, Russia announced that it had moved troops to Belarus for what it called joint military exercises, giving it the option of attacking Ukraine from the north, east and south. Barely 24 hours later, the Russian defence ministry on Thursday said it would hold huge naval drills across four seas - the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Mediterranean - that includes the deployment of more 140 warships and supporting vessels.
Moscow continues to insist it has no plans to invade, but has stuck to a series of demands - including a ban on Ukraine joining NATO - in exchange for de-escalation.
The US meanwhile has given the greenlight for the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to rush US-made weapons to Ukraine, a source familiar with the authorisations told the AFP. Lithuanian Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas on Thursday confirmed that his country was sending defence and other aid to Ukraine in a bid to deter a Russian attack.
Last year, the Biden's administration approved the transfer of $650 million worth of US weapons to Ukraine, $200 million of it in December 2021 alone.
There's little doubt that Ukraine is boosting its arsenal in case of a Russian attack.
But can the Ukrainian military really oppose a Russian force composed of hundreds of thousands of ground troops, as well as tanks, equipped with short-range missiles and supported by naval and air forces?
A 'rude awakening for Kyiv'
Back in 2014, during the annexation of Crimea, Russian soldiers easily got past Ukrainian defences. At that time, "the Ukrainian army was in a pretty disastrous state", recalled Julia Friedrich, a research fellow at the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
"The events of 2014-2015 were a rude awakening for Kyiv, which then embarked on major military reforms," explained Nicolo Fasola - a specialist in security issues in the former Soviet territories at the University of Birmingham - in an interview with FRANCE 24.
It was an effort that initially worked. The Ukrainian army has grown from about 6,000 combat-ready troops to nearly 150,000 according to a summary of the US Congressional Research Service conducted in June 2021. "Since 2014, Ukraine has sought to modernize its tanks, armored vehicles and artillery systems," the report notes.
Kyiv's financial efforts to modernise its military over the past seven years has been significant. The share of the national budget allocated to military expenditure increased from 1.5 percent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in 2014 to more than 4.1 percent in 2020, according to World Bank figures. This share of defence spending is more than most NATO countries and similar to Russia's military spending.
US antitank missiles and Turkish drones
Ukraine, moreover, is no longer alone against Russia. Since 2014, NATO as an organisation as well as some member countries "have provided considerable aid, which is equivalent to about $14 billion", Fasola estimated.
The US has been the main provider of military hardware such as radio equipment, military transport trucks and more than 200 Javelin man-portable antitank missiles. Britain, Poland and Lithuania have also supplied Ukraine with defensive weapons.
Even Turkey has come to Ukraine's aid by selling its famous Bayraktar TB2 drones. "While the U.S.-provided weapons, such as the Javelin antitank missiles, have garnered the most headlines of Ukraine's armory, Kyiv's less-hyped backing from Turkey has raised alarms in Moscow," noted the Washington Post over the weekend.
The use of the Bayraktar TB2 drones in Libya, Syria and especially the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has indeed grabbed headlines. But Friedrich notes that while, "it's true that these machines proved decisive in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it's difficult to know what impact they could have in a possible conflict with Russia, as the configuration is so different".
Trained, motivated troops shedding Soviet legacy
Ukraine's military modernisation is not just quantitative or restricted to material hardware. "There has been enormous progress in terms of training and preparation for combat," said Gustav Gressel, a specialist in Russian military issues at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
According to Gressel, one of the main weaknesses of the Ukrainian defence system came from the military doctrines that had been developed during the Soviet era. "Moscow therefore knew perfectly well what to expect and could prepare itself accordingly," he explained.
The Soviet defence legacy highlights the importance of military training provided by NATO instructors in Ukrainian bases, such as the Military Law and Order Service (MLOS) training centre, established near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv near the Polish border. "This has allowed officers and soldiers to unlearn old reflexes that are predictable for Moscow," said Gressel.
The Ukrainian army's other asset comes from its soldiers. "Most of them enlisted in 2014-2015. So, it's a voluntary act to defend the homeland, which means they are highly motivated and have high morale," said Glen Grant - senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation who has worked in Ukraine on the country's military reform - in an interview with FRANCE 24. "Between the Javelin missiles, the drones and the morale of the troops, the Ukrainian army has become a formidable opponent," he added.
This is particularly true in the eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops have gained experience in a conflict that has raged for more than seven years against Russian-backed separatists.
Russia's aerial edge
But for Ukraine, the situation in the Donbass is double-edged. "It's a low-intensity conflict, quite close to guerrilla warfare, and this has led the West and Kyiv to focus on military doctrines and equipment suitable for this type of confrontation, whereas in the event of an attack by Russia, it will probably be very different," said Fasola.
In concrete terms, for example, "the Americans have supplied sniper rifles to the Ukrainian army to counter Russia, which uses the Donbass as a training ground for its own snipers", noted Gressel. But this kind of weapon will not be of much use against Russian tanks crossing the border.
The specific nature of the clashes in the Donbass, which are mainly skirmishes, has not seen the use of Ukrainian airpower.
Military experts believe Ukraine's air force modernisation has been marginal and aviation remains the weak spot of Ukraine's defence capacity. Most of the country's bombers and fighter jets are more than 30 years old, and pilots are poorly trained and poorly paid. "This is why, if Russia decides to attack, and uses its planes correctly, the air support should quickly give them a decisive advantage, despite all the modernisation of the Ukrainian army," said Gressel.
Assessing the 'cost-benefit ratio of an offensive'
If Russia decides to invade, Friedrich acknowledges that, "it will be very difficult for Ukraine and its allies to maintain a balance of power".
But as the sabre-rattling over Ukraine gathers pace, military deliveries such as Britain's anti-tank missiles can play an important role, according to Dumitru Minzarari, an Eastern Europe specialist at the German Institute for International Affairs. "They have strategic and material value," said Minzarari in an interview with FRANCE 24. "From a strategic point of view, this indicates a significant possibility that the country providing this military support will decide to become even more involved if an armed conflict breaks out," he explained.
In addition, "the Ukrainian army can inflict additional damage on invading Russian forces with this equipment, which can have a deterrent effect. The anti-tank weapons supplied by the United Kingdom are a good illustration of this: any Russian offensive will inevitably involve armoured vehicle manoeuvres, and if Ukraine has modern weaponry to counter them, this may cause Moscow to reconsider its assessment of the cost-benefit ratio of an offensive", Minzarari concluded.
It's the reason Grant, of the Baltic Security Foundation, believes that it's important to provide the Ukrainian army with "everything that can strengthen the mobility and resistance of the brigades, such as ambulances, transport vehicles, radios.
"Because the longer Ukraine can make the fighting last, the bloodier it will be for Russia, which will be all the more dissuasive," he said.
This article was translated from the original in French.