‘No easy march’: Crimean memories spur Ukrainian army to rebuild

When Yuliy Mamchur, a Ukrainian Air Force colonel, attempted to repel a Russian attack on his base in the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, his troops were barely equipped for their mission.

“We stayed for a month surrounded by elite, well-armed troops. We only had pistols and three machine guns to defend the air base, ”recalls Mamchur.

The pitiful state of the Ukrainian military was revealed seven years ago when Russia seized the peninsula and then started a separatist war in Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

The troops did not have bulletproof vests and wore old Soviet helmets unable to stop bullets. The tanks and many armored vehicles did not function due to missing parts and fuel shortages.

With Russia having recently gathered around 110,000 people along Ukraine’s eastern border and in the occupied Crimean Peninsula, Kiev now has a larger, more professional army with combat experience to offer resistance, if not a defeat, to the Russian forces.

“We have been preparing for the enemy offensive since 2014,” Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov said this week as he inspected the well-funded National Guard.

“And I want the aggressor to understand that the attack on Ukraine will not be an easy march, it will be a huge loss for anyone who decides to enter our land without our consent.”

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov visits National Guard soldiers participating in military exercise in Mariupol

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, second from left, visits National Guard soldiers participating in a military exercise in Mariupol © Ukrainian Interior Ministry / AFP

Military intentions of Russia – which on Wednesday ordered troops near the border to return to their bases – are difficult to understand. But analysts, Ukrainian and Western officials say Kiev’s stronger armed forces would increase the military cost to Russia of an incursion or invasion, something President Vladimir Putin should take into account when assessing any climbing.

Public support for a Russian offensive would be a concern for the Kremlin, said a European diplomat, stressing that while the Russians support annexation of Crimea, they feel less attached to Donbass.

In the years leading up to the Moscow aggression in 2014, the Ukrainian armed forces had been deprived of resources by a pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych. But defense spending doubled to 3.4% of gross domestic product in 2019, from 1.6% in 2013, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The number of soldiers has increased.

Oleksandr Danylyuk, former adviser to the Ukrainian defense minister in 2014 and now at the Kiev-based Center for Defense Reform, estimates that Ukraine has around 250,000 active military personnel (the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates 209,000) and 1 million reservists, of which 250,000 have combat experience. , compared to only 60,000 combat-ready soldiers in 2014.

Informational graphic comparing the ground and air forces of Ukraine and Russia

The Ukrainian army has gone from a core of trained soldiers supplemented by battalions of volunteers to a more professional corps, hardened by years of fighting.

NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said Ukraine’s security and defense sector had “come a long way” in the past seven years, and highlighted progress in areas such as planning defense and military education.

Allies including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Lithuania provided training to Ukrainian forces, while NATO focused on strengthening command and control capabilities and improved communications.

“In 2014 Ukraine was caught off guard, the army was poorly trained, poorly equipped and there was a high level of corruption,” said Yohann Michel, IISS defense analyst. “One of the most important effects [of training] is on morale. Anything you can do to make troops feel more professional will make them more professional. “

These efforts are part of Kiev’s larger plan to meet NATO standards, with the goal of eventually joining the alliance.

“The improvements relate to the modernization and professionalization of the armed forces, but also to their goal of moving closer to NATO,” said Sarah Lain, Ukrainian researcher at the Royal United Services Institute.

Kiev has also invested in equipment. Soviet-era tanks and artillery have been refurbished. New precision weapons have been developed or obtained from the west, including more than 300 Javelin anti-tank missiles from the United States. Rocket systems have been improved.

Ukrainian gunner walks past boxes of shells in the village of Pisky in Donetsk in 2014

A Ukrainian gunner walks past cases of exhausted shells in the village of Pisky in Donetsk in 2014 © Anatolii Stepanov / AFP via Getty Images

Two years ago, Ukraine acquired six Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey, which Azerbaijan used to secure victory over Armenia in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Ukraine is in talks with Turkey to buy 48 more.

Using drones for reconnaissance and with limited strike capacity is a way for Kiev to overcome the shortcomings of its aging aircraft fleet, but IISS’s Michel warned the Russians would be ready with the jamming technology. and anti-drone defenses.

“Like the Javelin, these drones will not change the general balance of the conflict and are unlikely to overwhelm Russia,” he said.

Kiev also lacks full anti-drone and anti-aircraft capabilities and has so far failed to convince the United States to help fill this gap by providing Patriot missile systems.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he had relayed “certain specific needs” of the Ukrainian army to Washington but that the American response would depend on Russia’s actions.

However, Western allies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, provide vital surveillance functions and, since the formation of troops from Moscow last month, have stepped up spy plane deployments to the areas. occupied by Russian forces.

“It reassures and informs the Ukrainians, and also sends a signal to Moscow, that we know where you are and what you are doing,” a Western defense official said.

James Sherr, senior researcher at the Estonian Institute for Foreign Policy at the International Center for Defense and Security, warned that even obtaining state-of-the-art equipment would not solve the main weaknesses of the Ukrainian defense as it faces “One of the world’s masters of extremely mobile, combined arms and maneuver warfare. ”

“The Ukrainian forces are neither trained for this nor have they received the necessary resources for this,” he said.

Danylyuk said Russia had the military might to “unleash massive aggression” and could capture territory to enable it to restore water supply to the Crimean Peninsula – seen as one of Moscow’s possible goals. “But are they ready to pay the price?”

“It won’t be an easy walk for Russia this time around. . . There will be tens of thousands of casualties, ”said Mamchur, who is part of the Ukrainian reserve forces – and stands ready to serve again.

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