Ukraine’s military is in such disarray after Russia’s recent taking of Crimea that it will need help from NATO and outside forces to reorganize and defend the country, analysts and military experts say.
Russia has moved 30,000 of its elite special forces into place on its 1,200-mile border with East Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin says it’s nothing more than a training exercise, but Western leaders say he may be preparing to invade the eastern half of Ukraine.
In the two weeks since Crimeans voted in what the West calls a sham referendum to secede, Ukraine has been frantically trying to build up its defenses. Friday, Ukrainian troops dug trenches and built tank fortifications on the border.
Though Ukraine’s military is outnumbered and outgunned, there are steps its commanders should take that could raise the cost of Russian aggression and perhaps make Russia think twice about invading, military analysts say.
“From a tactical perspective, Ukrainians can put up a fight,” says Chris Harmer, a former Navy commander who participated in Pentagon planning for NATO force and command structures. “They can bleed the Russians here and there if the Russians decide to move against Ukraine.”
Since pro-Russian sentiment in eastern and southern Ukraine is focused in urban areas, Ukraine may want to locate a guerrilla campaign in the countryside to make it difficult for the Russians to transport supplies and govern, says James Carafano, vice president for foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation.
The Ukrainian military could prepare an insurgency, starting with laying land mines for Russian troops and tanks in eastern and southern Ukraine, says J.D. Gordon, a retired Navy commander and senior fellow at Let Freedom Ring, a Philadelphia-based public policy group.
The military could send special forces and snipers to target invaders and pro-Russian paramilitary groups, Gordon says.
“They can make life difficult for the Russians, that’s for sure.” Gordon said.
So can the West, analysts say.
President Obama has said repeatedly that the United States does not intend to respond militarily to Russia’s aggression, but that may not exclude indirect assistance to Ukraine. Ukraine could seek military advice on developing a defensive strategy from the United States, NATO or other Western military experts.
Western military planners “have to go in and do an assessment, determine what they need that they can use,” says Carafano, who worked on military strategy during a 25-year career in the U.S. Army.
“What’s the strategy, who’s going to execute it and what’s the capacity to do that?” Carafano says. The West can send advisers, or Ukrainian military officials could travel to NATO countries for consultations.
Two things that would make life miserable for Russian military planners are “if they didn’t win quickly or if the conflict gets very bloody very fast,” Carafano says. Ukraine could plan to “fight a good fight at the border and then pull back to redoubts, where you fight really long and inflict a lot of Russian casualties,” he says.
Such a campaign in the countryside could focus on Russian convoys, aircraft and power and communication lines, he says.
The American defense strategy contractor MPRI showed how such training and organization can succeed in Croatia, where it revamped the inept Croatian military before the Croatian defeat of Serb forces holding Krajina in 1995, according to military think-tank Globalsecurity.org.
It’s clear Russian “forces are poised to move,” says Ian Brzezinski, an analyst at the Atlantic Council.
“It’s a mistake for the United States to settle on a strategy solely focused on economic and diplomatic means,” he said.
The United States and NATO should immediately supply anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons requested by Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, says Ian Brzezinski, an analyst at the Atlantic Council.
They should send intelligence and surveillance capabilities and military trainers to improve Ukraine’s ability to track Russian movements and prepare a defense. They should hold scheduled joint military exercises with Ukraine earlier than planned, Brzezinski says.
Germany and others in Europe worry about any measures that would further escalate the conflict with Russia, “but there is also a risk of doing nothing and encouraging Putin to take the same actions against other countries in the former Soviet space,” Brzezinski says.
NATO should shore up its allies in Romania, Poland and the Baltics and provide military organizational assistance to Ukraine, says Swedish economist Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
“They need communications, so they can communicate without being listened to by the Russians, air defenses and anti-tank weapons,” Aslund says. “Ukrainians are traditionally very good soldiers, brave and tough. What we’re seeing here is total disorganization and obvious treason.”
Ukraine’s military performance was so poor that its leadership’s allegiance is in question, Aslund says.
President Viktor Yanukovych, whose ousting in February prompted the Crimea crisis, “clearly appointed traitors in the military,” Aslund says.
The predecessor to Ukraine’s former defense minister, Ihor Tenyukh, was Volodymyr Zamana, a Russian citizen in the 1990s, Aslund says.
“The great question is we don’t know who to rely on there,” Aslund says.
Russia, which has 774,500 personnel in its $52 billion-a-year military, took over Crimea without firing a shot. It deployed troops that wore no insignia identifying their nationality, backed by hundreds of pro-Russian paramilitary and civilian demonstrators, many of whom were recruited by Russian Internet ads for men with military experience to travel to Ukraine as tourists.
In contrast, Ukraine’s military budget is about $1 billion and the preparedness of its 100,000 personnel is abysmal. Tenyukh told the Ukrainian parliament he had little to work with to oppose Russia’s moves. He was replaced March 25 with senior military commander Mykhailo Koval.
According to Ukraine, 6,000 of 41,000 ground troops were combat-ready. The rest lacked specialized training, equipment and arms in good working order. More than 70% of the armored equipment is obsolete and worn out. Soviet-made T-64 tanks have been in service for 30 years or more.
The Ukraine Defense Ministry said of 18,000 troops stationed in Crimea, only 4,300 are expected to remain in the Ukrainian military.
Twelve of Ukraine’s 17 Navy warships have fallen under control of the Russian navy, leaving Ukraine’s Black Sea coast essentially undefended, Harmer says.
Ukraine’s formation of a national guard “is a highly visible sign they don’t think their military is in a confident position against the Russians,” Harmer says.
Carafano says the West should help Ukraine prepare militarily because “the Russians are going to respect force.”
Putin doesn’t care about sanctions or being embarrassed by the U.S. government, he says. “What he’s going to care about is Ukraine building a military capability that will prevent him from achieving his objectives.”