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Is Ukraine Military Ready to Thwart Russian Invasion?

Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armored personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, May 7, 2014.

Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armored personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, May 7, 2014.

The tensions in eastern Ukraine have put the spotlight on the nation’s military and security forces.

They face enormous challenges trying to regain control of areas held by heavily-armed pro-Russian separatists.

Analysts back up what several polls of Ukrainians show: there is little faith the troops are up to the task.

Western estimates say the Ukrainian Defense Ministry controls between 70,000 to 130,000 men under arms.

But Stephen Blank, an expert at the American Foreign Policy Council, said Ukraine’s armed forces are struggling.

“The command and control at the top has been very shaky,” he said. “There have been several defense ministers and heads of various forces since the new government came into power.”

“Second, their intelligence services have been penetrated for a long time by Russians,” Blank said. “Third, they have been undercapitalized, victimized by corruption and poor leadership for years.”

Keir Giles, head of the Conflict Studies Research Center in Oxford, England, said Ukraine has been trying to modernize its armed forces.

“But it is a great deal less ambitious and less well-funded than the equivalent in Russia,” he said. “So Ukrainians are still operating the kinds of equipment which are no longer in service with the spearhead of the Russian forces.

“These are older types [of military hardware], they have an older manning system,” Giles said. “Much less has changed for the Ukrainian military since the end of the Soviet Union than it has for Russia since the Georgia War.”

Russia’s efforts

Experts say Russia’s effort to modernize its military was prompted by the poor showing in Moscow’s five-day war in 2008 with Georgia over two separatist regions.

One reform was to make the Russian military more mobile, better geared for rapid response and for local conflicts.

The result of those reforms were on display during Russia’s recent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Experts say Ukraine is still tied to having a large Soviet-style army.

Giles said another problem facing the Ukrainian military is the uncertain loyalty of many its members.

“We shouldn’t believe all of the stories that we’ve seen coming out of eastern Ukraine about defections,” he said. “But it’s still the case that many of the senior levels of the Ukrainian armed forces served together with their Russian counterparts in the Soviet armed forces.

“And it’s still the case that many of the Ukrainian servicemen that we have encountered in the days before this crisis emerged, described themselves quite openly as being Russian,” Giles said.

Pro-Russian separatists control about a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine.

In addition, an estimated 40,000 Russian troops - seen as the spearhead of a potential invasion force - have been deployed on the Ukrainian border.

Giles - and others - say the Ukrainian military is not ready to thwart a Russian invasion, if it happens.

“Certainly in terms of capability, the Russian armed forces are far better equipped and better organized at present than the Ukrainian equivalent,” he said. “However, there are caveats to that.

“Many of the people who look at the sustainability and logistics of the Russian armed forces, still believe that they are no longer in a position to fight an extended campaign, which is of course a risk if they overextend themselves into Ukraine,” Giles said. “So any operation in Ukraine would have to be as quick or as unopposed as the armed conflict in Georgia or the operation in Crimea.”

Experts say if Russia invades eastern Ukraine, it runs the risk of a protracted war, especially if the Ukrainians engage in guerrilla warfare.

And that, analysts say, is not a scenario favored by Moscow because an indirect fight may be the Ukraine military’s greatest strength.
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    Andre de Nesnera

    Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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