In Depth

Nato vs. Russia: who would win a war?

Military alliance deploys ships and jets to deter Russian strike on Ukraine

When Russian troops crossed into Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Nato was caught flat-footed by Moscow’s sudden and unorthodox military campaign.

Now, with Russian troops once again massing at the Ukrainian border, the international military alliance is keen to avoid a repeat performance.

The two sides are negotiating, with the stated aim of avoiding an armed escalation that would pull in many of the world’s most powerful military forces. But if a conflict cannot be avoided, who stands to lose if Nato and Russian go head-to-head on the battlefield?   

The latest

The US and its Nato allies will consider personal sanctions against Vladimir Putin if Russia attempts to invade Ukraine, Joe Biden has warned, as the military alliance began mobilising military forces in support of the eastern European country.

The US president told reporters that there would be “enormous consequences” if Moscow gives the order to troops to attack Ukraine in what he said could amount to “the largest invasion since World War Two”. Asked whether the US would pursue sanctions targeting Putin directly, he replied: “Yes.”

Biden’s comments were echoed by UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that she has “ruled nothing out” and that the government is already looking to “toughen up” its sanctions on people, banks and businesses.

“What is important is that all of our allies do the same,” she said. “It is by collective action. By showing Putin we’re united, we will help deter a Russian incursion.” 

Putin’s spokesperson responded “angrily” to the remarks, the BBC reported. Dmitry Peskov said the sanctions would not be “painful” for the Russian president, but would be “politically destructive”.

Nato is currently in the process of deploying reinforcements to eastern Europe amid growing fears of a planned Russian incursion. The military alliance has sent “additional ships and fighter jets” to shore up “allied deterrence and defence as Russia continues its military build-up in and around Ukraine”.

“Denmark is sending a frigate to the Baltic Sea and is set to deploy four F-16 fighter jets to Lithuania,” Nato said in a statement.

Meanwhile, “Spain is sending ships to join Nato naval forces”, while “France has expressed its readiness to send troops to Romania” and “the Netherlands is sending two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria”.

What is Nato’s capability?

The core principle of Nato’s international military alliance is its system of collective defence, meaning if any member state is attacked by a third party, then every member state must step in to defend it.

Fortunately for countries such as Montenegro, which spends just £67m a year on defence, there are some military big hitters in the alliance. 

The US spends more on defence than double the rest of Nato combined, with 2021 spending estimated at $705bn (£516bn), according to the Department of Defense.

As well as being the biggest defence spender in the world, the US has a powerful arsenal and a huge amount of manpower – 1.3 million active troops, with another 865,000 in reserve, said The New York Times in 2017. The UK is the second biggest overall spender in Nato, putting nearly £50bn into defence annually compared to Germany’s £45bn, France’s £42bn and Italy’s £20bn.

What is Russia’s capability?

Russia’s military capability is not to be sniffed at, easily ranking among the world’s most powerful.

According to the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, its inventory includes “336 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 2,840 battle tanks, 5,220 armored infantry fighting vehicles, over 6,100 armored personnel carriers and more than 4,684 pieces of artillery”.

But it is lacking in some areas of modern military technology, including drone capability, electronic components, and radar and satellite reconnaissance, Russian journalist and military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told Deutsche Welle.

“That’s what the Russian military is talking about: yes, we have weapons, including long-range weapons, but our reconnaissance capabilities are weaker than our attack capabilities,” Felgenhauer said. “So we have-long range, sometimes precision guided weapons, but we don’t always know where the target is.”

Who would win?

Research published in 2019 by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) found that British forces would be “comprehensively outgunned” in any conflict with Russia in eastern Europe. 

The RUSI found that the British Army and its Nato allies have a “critical shortage” of artillery and ammunition, meaning they would struggle to maintain a credible defence position if Russia were to opt for all-out aggression.

“At present, there is a risk that the UK – unable to credibly fight – can be dominated lower down the escalation ladder by powers threatening escalation,” said RUSI’s report.

But the UK wouldn’t need to stand alone against Russia. And Nato’s biggest player, the US, has an overwhelming advantage over Russia in conventional forces, Russian military analyst Aleksandr Golts told Deutsche Welle.

While Felgenhauer agreed with Golt’s assessment of the US’s military advantage, he warned that open warfare often comes down to far more than the inventories that each side of the conflict can call upon. 

He told DW that “it’s like predicting the result of a soccer match”, adding: “Yes, basically, Brazil should beat America in soccer, but I have seen Americans beat Brazil in South Africa, at the Confederations Cup. You never know the result until the game is played.”

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