Russia-Ukraine war: how big is Ukraine’s army - size of armed forces compared to Russia, UK, US, NATO
Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine on 24 February and now have the stated goal of capturing the Donbas region, having previously failed to capture Kyiv
It’s been seven months since Russia invaded Ukraine in what Russia’s President Vladimir Putin described as a ‘special military operation’. The ensuing conflict has caused thousands of deaths, and has forced millions to flee the former Soviet republic.
The war has seen Russia take much of the Donbas region and form a land bridge to Crimea - a peninsular it occupied in 2014. But Ukraine successfully pushed Russia away from its capital Kyiv in the early days of the war, and has since retaken most of the Kharkiv region in a major counter-offensive.
In response, Vladimir Putin has raised the stakes of the conflict by formally mobilising Russian military reservists. The authoritarian leader has already placed his country’s nuclear forces on a higher alert level.
But, after months of reports about how depleted the Russian military has become, how big is its army - and how does Ukraine compare?
How big is Ukraine’s army?
According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), Ukraine had 196,600 active military personnel when the invasion began on 24 February.
This split into:
- 125,600 ground troops
- 35,000 air personnel
- 15,000 naval troops
- Another 900,000 reservists
These numbers have been bolstered as men aged between 18 and 60 have been conscripted and other civilians have volunteered to bear arms - bringing the total to between 500,000 and 700,000 troops according to various estimates by experts.
It’s hard to track the number of casualties in the war on either side because Russia and Ukraine tend to hide the scale of their own losses and overstate those of their enemy.
The latest official estimate from Ukraine in August said it had lost 9,000 soldiers. At one stage, Ukrainian presidential advisers said the daily casualty rate was between 100 to 200 troops dying every day.
The Russian defence ministry said in April that it believed it had killed 23,367 Ukrainian troops. In June, Russia also reported it had downed 208 Ukrainian aircraft, 3,696 tanks and 2,055 artillery guns since the invasion began.
None of these claims can be independently verified.
Most of Ukraine’s firepower is land-based, with the country boasting more than 2,000 tanks, 1,960 artillery pieces and 2,870 armoured vehicles at the time of Russia’s invasion.
Troops also have since received Nato lethal aid, including 10,000 missiles and 120 armoured vehicles donated by the UK, 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles from Germany, and 90 howitzer artillery pieces, 120 Phoenix Ghost attack drones as well as $1.6 billion in support from the US.
Alongside this military equipment, Ukrainian troops have been given tactical instruction by the West.
Ukraine’s air power consisted of 146 attack aircraft and 42 attack helicopters at the start of the invasion, while its navy had just two warships.
It remains one of a handful of countries to have given up its nuclear weapons, meaning it has no deterrent to threaten Russia with.
Given the country has been fighting so-called Russian backed separatists in the East of the country since 2014, its armed forces are well-versed in combat. However, with a pre-war defence budget of between $2bn to $5bn, it does not boast the capabilities of its powerful neighbour.
How big is Russia’s army?
Russia’s military pre-war budget vastly outgunned Ukraine’s, with the country spending between $40bn to $65bn.
The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) says Russia’s defence spending doubled between 2005 and 2018 as the country sought to modernise its army.
These were its capabilities at the time of the invasion:
- 900,000 active military personnel across land, sea and air
- 280,000 soldiers
- 165,000 air personnel
- 150,000 naval troops
- Around two million reservists.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Professor Michael Clarke - a security expert and former director of the Royal United Services Institute - estimated 40% of the active Russian army consists of conscripts. Vladimir Putin previously denied conscripts were fighting in Ukraine, but his defence ministry has since admitted some have played a role in the invasion.
Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27-years-old have to serve for a 12-month period every year but are not supposed to see frontline action under Russian law. The latest draft took place on 1 April.
Vladimir Putin has since extended the age limit for the Russian army, opening recruitment up to people over the age of 40. The country has also turned to mercenaries and has even attempted to conscript convicts into its military.
On 21 September, the Russian President went even further, ordering the ‘part-mobilisation’ of his country’s military reservists. His defence minister Sergei Shoigu said 300,000 troops with combat experience would be called up to fight as a result of the announcement. However, military experts say this force will take months to equip at a time when Russia is believed to be running out of military hardware.
UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said President Putin’s move was “an admission that his invasion is failing”. The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) said it had been brought about by “public criticism” of Russia’s strategy in Ukraine and came at a “greater political risk” to the Russian President.
The number of troops Russia had in and around Ukraine at the time of the invasion was estimated to be 190,000, as well as several hundred mercenaries from the Wagner Group. However, the figure is believed to be closer to 100,000 now.
Close Moscow ally Belarus has so far not officially committed troops to the conflict, although it has conducted military exercises close to the border.
Having retreated from the Kyiv region in early April, Russia began an offensive in the Donbas on 18 April. Its military leadership has also not ruled out forming a land bridge across southern Ukraine to the Kremlin-backed breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova.
The MoD says the Russian force in eastern Ukraine includes remnants of the units that mounted attacks on Kyiv, many of which have merged. But this likely demoralised group of troops did not stop Russia from making gains, as it captured the entirety of the Luhansk region in July and holds much of the Donetsk region.
The capture of the two parts of the Donbas region has become Moscow’s stated aim in the war, although President Putin has indicated he wants his troops to take more of Ukraine. In his speech announcing the part-mobilisation of reservists, he brought up additional war aims - to ensure Russian territorial integrity and protect Russian speakers in Ukraine.
Ukraine claims to have killed 55,110 Russian personnel (almost a third of the initial invasion force) as of 21 September. According to an official report seen by the Daily Mirror, the scale of losses could be enough to collapse the entire Russian army.
Russia has only officially admitted to losing 1,351 soldiers - a figure given on 25 March, just over a month into the invasion. It’s impossible to verify Ukraine’s figure, although Russia’s official estimate appears to be very low given the scale of the conflict.
Russian casualties are believed to include at least 12 Russian generals. It’s thought they have been killed in vulnerable forward positions as they attempted to improve communication with frontline troops and bolster low morale.
The UK MoD has also reported that Russia has suffered devastating losses among its mid- and junior-ranking officers. As well as making its forces less effective in this conflict - due to low morale and poor discipline - the MoD has warned these losses could harm Russia’s army in the future.
Russia’s pre-war land-based capabilities included more than 13,000 tanks, just under 6,000 artillery pieces and close to 20,000 armoured vehicles - although it did not throw all of this firepower at Ukraine. Ukraine claims to have destroyed 2,227 tanks, 1,340 artillery pieces and 4,748 armoured vehicles.
The invaders’ main advantage is its long-range weaponry, with the country possessing more than 500 land-based ballistic missile launchers. It has fallen back on its artillery and rocket systems after it’s disastrous attempt on Kyiv, where it tried to use armoured columns to break through Ukraine’s lines only to leave its supply lines vulnerable.
Part of the problem Russia has faced in Ukraine is that its opponent’s forces are highly mobile. This was demonstrated by Ukraine’s lightning counter-offensive in September when it retook swathes of territory in the Kharkiv region by getting behind Russian lines.
Russia’s long-distance weaponry strategy has led to thousands of civilian casulaties, and has also caused international concern as some rockets have landed close to Ukrainian nuclear power facilities. Occupying Russian forces have also been accused of war crimes, with the most recent attrocity believed to have been discovered in the eastern city of Izyum.
It has kidnapped and executed democratically elected Ukrainian officials in towns it has captured, and is now promoting referenda to formally declare independence from Ukraine in these territories.
The pariah state claims to have used air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missiles for the first time - something US President Joe Biden confirmed on 21 March. But the UK Ministry of Defence said that the weapon is still “developmental” and that its use was “highly likely intended to detract from a lack of progress in Russia’s ground campaign”.
When it comes to airpower, the country had 1,328 attack planes and more than 470 attack helicopters before its invasion. Ukraine claims to have downed or captured 253 aircraft and 217 helicopters.
At sea, its 74 warships and 51 submarines dwarf Ukraine’s tiny fleet - although Moscow has only deployed around 20 naval vessels to the Black Sea, according to the UK government. Ukraine says it has still been able to destroy 15 Russian vessels, including the Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva and the Admiral Makarov - although Russia claims the latter is still afloat.
Kyiv’s marine weaponry has allowed it to retake the highly strategic Snake Island in the Black Sea.
Russia has had plenty of battlefield experience over the last decade as a result of its involvement in Syria’s civil war, where it has propped up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It has also sent forces to Libya and invaded Georgia back in 2008.
However, this experience appears to have counted for little in Ukraine given what the MoD has labelled as strategic planning and operational execution “failures”. The Ministry of Defence believes Russia’s military is now “significantly weaker” as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.
Part of the reason for its failings could be corruption. Professor Michael Clarke told the BBC it runs “deep” within the Russian ranks and said the fact that most of the army believed it was on exercise in the run up to the invasion meant it was not battle ready.
“When they’re on exercise, they agree to all sorts of things that aren’t really true - they tick the boxes for maintenance that [isn’t] really there and they sell their equipment because they’re paid so little. And so the forces that have gone over the border, actually, are extremely unprepared,” he said.
Russia’s biggest threat to Ukraine and the rest of the world is its stockpile of nuclear weapons, the mere existence of which acts as a deterrence to directly engaging in warfare with the country. Vladimir Putin heightened the alert level for Russia’s nuclear forces at the beginning of March.
Russia has raised the stakes further in recent months by conducting a test of nuclear capable missile and talking up the prospect of nuclear war on state TV. However, its ambassador to the UK Andrei Kelin rowed back on the threat of nuclear war in Ukraine - telling the BBC on 29 May that he believed tactical nuclear weapons wouldn’t be used.
How big are the UK’s armed forces?
According to the latest publicly available assessment by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the UK’s full-time armed forces consist of more than 159,000 personnel. This figure includes 76,300 ground soldiers, 29,960 air personnel and 29,136 naval troops.
Some of these troops are currently on deployment with Nato in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states amid fears Russia could be planning to invade other neighbours and former USSR states. These concerns have led Sweden and Finland to apply to join NATO.
The UK actually has a target to reduce its land-based forces to 72,500 by 2025, meaning it would have 30,000 fewer troops than it did in 2010. At present, it has more than 32,000 reservists.
We are yet to hear whether or not new Prime Minister Liz Truss will halt these cuts.
How big is the US army?
Few countries can match the might of the US military machine. According to the latest estimates from 2020, the country spends more than $700bn annually on its armed forces.
In 2020, this was 37% of the world’s entire defence spending. The US is believed to have over one million active ground troops, 300,000 naval personnel and 300,000 air troops.
How big is the NATO army?
The defence organisation NATO has around 3.5 million active and reserve personnel it can call upon should one of its members be attacked.
It has announced that it is growing the size of its high response force to 300,000 troops in the wake of the Ukraine war.