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Russia vs Ukraine: A fighting force comparison

If Russia were to invade Ukraine, official figures on military strength predict a one-sided affair. But the numbers don't tell the whole story.

Investors are breathing more easily after reports that Russia has pulled its troops back from the border with Ukraine, but what if a full-scale invasion were to happen anyway?

Although Ukrainian armed forces would be completely outmatched in any outright conflict with Russia, the actual fighting would likely bear little resemblance to how both forces look on paper, experts told CNBC. Still, Moscow has the upper hand in every traditional quantitative and qualitative measure of martial might.

"In every sense of the word, Russia has the advantage militarily speaking," said Paul Floyd, a military analyst for geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor. "There is no question Russia will win [in a full-scale invasion], but Ukraine will impose a cost, and is Russia willing to bear it?"

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Although Russia would easily take the flat, eastern part of the country in a hypothetical fight, Ukraine could successfully operate a guerrilla campaign that would prove costly for any occupation force, Floyd said. Despite the manpower imbalance on paper between Ukraine and its would-be invader, he added, Russia is prepared to bring only between 70,000 and 92,000 troops across the border. Current troop positions and logistical problems would make a larger invading force unlikely, Floyd explained.

'A question of days'

Ukrainian soldiers at their newly erected checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainain city of Slavyansk on April 25, 2014.
Genya Savilov | AFP | Getty Images
Ukrainian soldiers at their newly erected checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainain city of Slavyansk on April 25, 2014.

Even that figure may be overestimating Russia's strength. Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said any Russian invasion force would number between 40,000 and 50,000 soldiers in the first week of war.

Ukraine's forces, however, would likely be even more paltry: Despite official accounts of 70,000 ground forces, Benitez said Kiev could field as few as 7,000 to defend eastern Ukraine.

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Logistical issues plague both sides, he said, but the Ukrainian command has the added problem of troop loyalty—missions to reclaim parts of the embattled east failed when whole units defected to the pro-Russian side.

Because of this, Benitez said, a Russian takeover of eastern Ukraine "would be a question of days."

—By CNBC's Everett Rosenfeld.

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