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Russia vs Ukraine: 'No contest' if fighting starts

The standoff in Crimea has not escalated to the point of military-on-military violence, at least partly because Ukraine's leadership has to recognize that against Russia, it has few military options.

In 2008, the Republic of Georgia took military action against separatist elements officially within its own borders. Russia's army then got involved directly in the fighting on the side of the separatists, and it went badly for Georgia: Its forces were crushed.

It hasn't been much of a leap for commentators to draw parallels with the current situation in Crimea. But while Ukraine's military is much better equipped and trained than Georgia's, security experts say Ukraine's armed forces are no match for Russia.

(Read more: Every oligarch for himself: Crazy days in Ukraine)

"It's really no contest. The sheer size of the Russian forces is just too big, and the Ukrainians must know that," said Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, a publication focusing on global military matters, equipment and strategy.

Russian armored personnel carriers reported to be heading to Simferopol of Crimea, Ukraine.
Bulent Doruk | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Russian armored personnel carriers reported to be heading to Simferopol of Crimea, Ukraine.

Russia carried out a series of bloodless takeovers of Ukrainian military facilities in the early morning hours Monday, seizing a naval missile base, an air base, a military hospital and other facilities, according to a report in The New York Times.

Ukraine's navy is vastly outnumbered in Crimea itself by the Russian navy, which operates its Black Sea Fleet out of the province. Ukraine has 19 warships there, but the Russians have at least twice that number in the Black Sea region and 10 times as many at the ready only a few days' journey away.

(Read more: Why Ukraine's bailout money may end up in Russia)

The disparity of military strike aircraft is even more in Russia's favor: 5 to 1. Russian pilots also have more experience and more flight hours than their Ukrainian counterparts.

The two air forces have similar planes—mostly of MiG fighters and Sukhois, both of which have reputations for being fast in the air, capable of executing complicated maneuvers and carrying deadly payloads for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.

Military defense spending by GDP

Rank
Country
(% of GDP)
Date of information
1 South Sudan 10.32 2012
2 Oman 8.61 2012
3 Saudi Arabia 7.98 2012
4 Israel 5.69 2012
5 Jordan 4.65 2012
6 Azerbaijan 4.64 2012
7 Algeria 4.48 2012
8 Russia 4.47 2012
9 United States 4.35 2012
10 Lebanon 4.04 2012
Source: Central Intelligence Agency

Russia's military budget dwarfs Ukraine's, Felstead told CNBC. "Russia spends more than $70 billion a year on its military, Ukraine only $2 billion," he said.

He added that he believes Russian troops who have deployed in Crimea are not ordinary rank-and-file soldiers. "These are elite Russian forces, highly motivated troops," he said.

Russian and Ukrainian troops previously trained together on the ground, in the air and at sea. That's unlikely to happen again anytime soon.

In order for Ukraine to have a chance at achieving a positive outcome in the conflict over Crimea, Felstead said, it will have to rely more on diplomacy than armed action to evict Russian troops from Crimea.

—By CNBC's Jason Gewirtz.

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