Ukraine Finds Its Forces Are Ill Equipped to Take Crimea Back From Russia

Steven Erlanger and Andrew E. Kramer — New York Times Mar 1, 2014

The new government of Ukraine called an emergency session of its national security council on Saturday in the face of the Russian military’s seizure of Crimea, but the leaders are facing a grim reality: Their armed forces are ill equipped to try to reconquer the region militarily.

Crimea has always been a vital base for the Soviet and then Russian Navy, serving as the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, which has controlled the waters off southern Russia since 1783. After a period of tension following Ukraine’s independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia got to keep its base in Crimea on a lease, extended until at least 2042 by the now-ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych.

But the Ukrainian military has only a token force in the autonomous region — a lightly armed brigade of about 3,500 people, equipped with artillery and light weapons but none of the country’s advanced battle tanks, said Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. The forces also have only one air squadron of SU-27 fighters deployed at the air base near Belbek.

A senior NATO official said that Ukraine’s small naval fleet, which was originally part of the Black Sea Fleet, had been boxed in by Russian warships.

The Russian takeover of Crimea was relatively easy, in part because the Ukrainian military was careful not to respond to a provocation that would excuse any larger intervention. The military — which has seen its top leader change constantly with the political situation — has also made a point of staying out of the internal political conflict in Ukraine.

The current military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Mykhailo Kutsyn, was named to the job only on Friday, after Adm. Yuriy Ilyin, 51, was relieved of his post after traveling to Crimea and, reportedly at least, having a heart attack. Admiral Ilyin had only been in the post for a short time himself, appointed by Mr. Yanukovych on Feb. 19 after Col. Gen. Volodymyr Zamana was fired for being unwilling to attack protesters in Kiev. All these changes have been an object lesson for the military to try to stay out of politics and civil unrest.

Even so, Ukraine had no realistic contingency plan for a Russian takeover of Crimea, given the size of the Russian forces legitimately based there, said Mr. Sutyagin, the military analyst. But he also said that he doubted that Russian forces would intervene elsewhere in Ukraine, because Russian forces would be too stretched to control much territory and even in the largely pro-Russia east, Ukrainian forces would be expected to fight back, aided by self-defense militias and partisans.

Matthew Clements, editor of Jane’s Intelligence Review, said that while the Ukrainian military was largely underfunded, “in a major land war, it would be fighting on reasonable terms,” and was “far more capable than the Georgian Army.” Any major conflict with Ukraine, he said, “would also expose a lot of key weaknesses in the Russian Army.”

Steven Pifer, a former American ambassador to Ukraine now at the Brookings Institution, said that if Russian forces tried to move into eastern Ukraine, “there will be some Ukrainian units that will resist, and a flood of people from western Ukraine saying, ‘This is my chance to be my grandfather and fight the Communists.’ ”

Still, owing to its legacy of Soviet bases to support any ground war to the west, the military is poorly positioned to counter an attack from the east, according to Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a military research institution in Moscow. The thin military presence in the east complicates any response if Russia chooses, for instance, to back pro-Russian activists who have reportedly seized administrative buildings in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine.

According to its website, the Ukrainian military has a total of 130,000 people under arms, with reserves of some one million. While conscription recently ended, it remains a largely conscript army. Ukraine has partially reformed its military since the Soviet days, when it was organized in large-scale divisions. It is now organized on the more flexible brigade system and has been reducing the size of its military forces, but it is underfunded with a lot of outdated hardware.

Ukraine had accomplished some military reform with NATO advice, but since President Yanukovych said that Ukraine was not interested in full NATO membership, cooperation has lagged, the NATO official said. Ukraine has, however, taken part in some military exercises with NATO, contribute some troops to NATO’s response force and helped in a small way in Libya.

In general, the Ukrainians are considered to have excellent home-produced tanks, but have also relied in part on the BMP-1, an infantry fighting vehicle that is a combined armored personnel carrier and light tank dating from the early 1970s. Ukrainian air defenses, all produced in Russia and a generation behind, are considered weak.

Mr. Pukhov, at the military research institution in Moscow, said that the Ukrainian military inherited a vast supply of legacy weapons from three Soviet military districts. “But 22 years have gone by during a state of near continuous economic decline and the Ukrainian military has received practically no new equipment,” he said. “Now the force is somewhat pathetic.”

He said the forces in Crimea were there less to defend Crimea than to prevent Crimean Tatar separatism and even more unofficially, Russian separatism. During Ukraine’s recent military reforms, contract soldiers were allowed to serve near their homes, meaning that many of the junior officer corps on the peninsula are also residents of Crimea, which is majority ethnic-Russian, so they are possibly more pro-Russian in their views.

On Saturday, Pyotr N. Mekhet, a reserve colonel offered a top position in Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, said the government should mobilize, or “the people will form militias,” suggesting a partisan movement could emerge.

Yuri Lutsenko, an opposition leader, reached out on Saturday to residents of eastern Ukraine who might be watching on television, saying the protesters who had populated the Maidan, or Independence Square, in Kiev had never harbored anger at those in the east.

“We reach out our hands from Maidan to Donetsk, to Kharkiv, to Dnepropetrovsk and to Simferopol,” he said, talking in Russian, which is spoken by many in the eastern part of the country.

Mr. Lutsenko also discouraged street fighters from arming themselves immediately. “The hour for a partisan movement has not yet come,” he said.

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