Russian threats to use military force against Ukraine are largely bluff. For a decade now Russia has been struggling to modernize its armed forces most of which are still equipped with Cold War (pre 1991) era weapons and equipment. Despite increasing defense spending by a third since 2008, less than half the troops have modern (post-Cold War) equipment. Moreover, the Russian Army is now smaller than the U.S. Army (300,000 troops versus 500,000), a historical first. Worse, a third of the Russian army troops are conscripts, who are on active duty for one year. While the U.S. Army also has a half million reserve troops who are trained and equipped to quickly enter operations, Russia has less than 100,000 similar (and less well equipped and trained) reserves. Russia also has 200,000 armed men in the Interior Ministry. This is basically a paramilitary forces equipped as light infantry. A few are highly trained commandos and riot police, but most only good for security duties not heavy combat. A third of the Interior Ministry troops are conscripts.
Russia hopes to buy and distribute sufficient new weapons and equipment so that by 2020 at least 70 percent of its combat troops have modern equipment. A lot of Russian commanders are not confident that this deadline will be met. These officers note that since 2008, when the five day Russian invasion of tiny Georgia exposed the equipment and training shortcomings of the army, not a lot of progress has been made to remedy those problems. Russia only has about 100,000 paratroopers, commandos and airborne troops it can really rely on and these elite forces have to be ready to deal with emergencies across the vastness (11 time zones) of Russia. Those hundred thousand troops would be quickly tied down if a similar move were made into Ukraine (which has ten times the population of Georgia and much more capable armed forces). Russia went into Georgia with 20,000 troops, about a third of them pro-Russian irregulars from nearby areas that had grudges with Georgia. That force suffered higher losses and a lot of other unexpected problems. Russian leaders noted the problems and vowed to fix everything. That has not happened.
While Russia has held training exercises in the last few years that quickly mobilized over a hundred thousand troops for unannounced maneuvers and inspections of readiness it later was revealed that while the troops turned out, there were a lot of deficiencies. The Russians put a positive spin on this and they were correct in assessing these “snap exercises” were a beginning. But Russia is nowhere near the finish line with this modernization process.
Russia is supposed to have a million troops on active duty but because of a shortage of volunteers and an abundance of draft dodgers it barely has 850,000. Lots of money is spent on developing new missiles, tanks, aircraft and ships but there is still not enough cash to replace the Cold War era vehicles that are still the norm. So Russia relies on subterfuge and deception in Ukraine. The last thing Russia wants is a situation where they will have to put a lot of their troops and equipment through their paces. The military isn’t ready for that sort of thing yet, especially with all those cell phone cameras ready to record any flubs. Finally there is the past experience with uncooperative Ukrainians. The Ukraine has always been an unwilling part of the Russian empire and have rebelled many times before regaining their independence once more in 1991. There are still elderly Russians who remember the campaign in the Ukraine from 1945 into the 1950s against Ukrainian rebels. The Ukrainians have not forgotten this and promise more of it if Russian troops return. Even in the Ukraine the “Russian” portion of the population is largely in favor of remaining a part of Ukraine. Same deal in eastern Ukraine which the Soviets sought to “Russify” with lots of migrants from Russia. Those migrants may still speak Russian but most think of themselves as Ukrainian. Thus Ukraine is no place for a paper tiger.