Is Ukraine's Military Ready for a Fight?
Two years ago, the Ukrainian military found itself badly outmatched and unprepared to fight Russian special forces who quickly took over the Crimean peninsula. They also struggled against Moscow-backed separatists in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine in 2015. While Kyiv is finally getting much-needed training and limited support to its various military and security branches from NATO, its forces are far from reaching the desired degree of readiness to take on its security challenges. Among Ukraine's problems is a lack of modern equipment and professional service capable of dealing with advanced Russian weapons and tactics. Trying to reverse these developments, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov recently stated, during a televised address on Ukraine's 1+1 network, that his country needs to modernize its military in order to return Crimea to Ukraine.
According to Avakov, "Ukraine will have to recreate and rebuild the army, the National Guard and the police, since the country had virtually nothing prior to the start of hostilities. ... and then, by our will, the Crimea will be with us -- in this I have no doubt." He added that the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, along with Ukrainian lawmakers, is working on creating a special National Guard unit in order to be "ready for the return of the Crimea." According to the minister, Ukraine failed to defend Crimea two years ago because of the Kharkiv Agreements signed by previous Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych -- the man who was chased out of his country to Russia by the Maidan protests, an event which in turn triggered Russia's military involvement. Avakov criticized the agreements for allowing Russia to significantly increase its military presence on the peninsula prior to the takeover: "We could not do anything when the Russian planes landed at the Crimean airfield, because Yanukovych signed the agreement."
The same TV program featured Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who spoke on the information methods to return the peninsula to Kyiv. According to Klimkin, the inhabitants of the peninsula should be shown the advantages of living in a democratic and European country, which is what Ukraine is today as it seeks to join the European Union: "The residents of Crimea are under fierce (pro-Russian) propaganda, we must show them by our example that their future is in the European democratic Ukraine and not in Crimea under Russian occupation, where they can go nowhere."
As Russian daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets noted, the Crimean peninsula became part of the Russian Federation following the results of the 2014 referendum after the annexation of the region by Russian special forces. According to Moscow, the region's reunification with Russia was supported by nearly 96 percent of the population -- a fact that Kyiv and a number of Western countries have refused to recognize, instead imposing sanctions against the region and Russia. Recently, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that the question on the status of Crimea is "closed forever -- the peninsula is part of Russia."
While Ukrainian forces could indeed raise their effectiveness through training, much-needed reforms, and inclusion of new military technologies and tactics into their concept of operations, these things take time. Such steps, morevoer, increase the likelihood of a costly confrontation with Russia over Crimea, which is probably out of the question for a Ukrainian government struggling with political upheaval and a worsening economy. Nonetheless, such issues are apparently not stopping other members of the Ukrainian government from making statements that call for additional military action against Russia-backed insurgents in the country's eastern regions. According to Ukrainian daily Obozrevatel.ua, Col. Peter Nedzelskiy, a senior military intelligence officer, recently said that military forces are ready to take action "on the liberation of temporarily-occupied areas of Donbass -- the Army awaits the relevant decision of the military-political leadership of the country." He added:
"Our soldiers are mentally ready for defense -- and they are also waiting for the command to attack. The moral and psychological state of the Ukrainian army is high enough -- we have learned to fight. If not for the Minsk Agreements, we would have expelled these terrorists from our land long ago."
Nedzelskiy assured: "Supposedly these terrorists are training to attack us or they are imitating an offensive -- this is laughable. We are always ready to give them an answer that will be very adequate and very strong." At the same time, the colonel stressed that " the Army is an instrument of policy, and the war is a continuation of the policy by armed methods -- of course, we cannot act without a decision by the military-political leadership -- we are waiting for such a decision."
While such statements may indeed raise the confidence of Ukrainian military forces, the facts on the ground may be very different, especially given visible improvements in Russian military capabilities following Moscow's involvement in the Syrian civil war.