Outgunned and Without Friends

Elizabeth Pond

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Beyond the Wall and The Rebirth of Europe.

“To be in this government is to commit political suicide,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk as he became Ukraine’s emergency prime minister seven weeks ago. That was just after Viktor Yanukovych’s riot police had killed more than seventy pro-democracy demonstrators in Kiev in cold blood and the incumbent president had fled to Russia.

The Ukrainian army, such as it is, might well echo Yatsenyuk’s suicide vow this week as it faces a Russian army that now surrounds and outguns it on a 1,000-mile front spanning a 300-degree arc of Ukraine’s borders.

In the intervening seven weeks, the interim Ukrainian government let Russia annex Crimea without firing a single defensive shot against the Russian commandos who took over the regional parliament and Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula. In the past week, it further let highly professional gunmen—who were armed with top-quality Russian military weapons and swiftly stockpiled materiel for an extended siege—take over police and security headquarters and set up area barricades and checkpoints in half a dozen localities in eastern Ukraine.

On Sunday, for the first time, Ukrainian security forces were authorized to fight back, and interim President Oleksandr Turchynov summoned the Ukrainian army to retake the posts that occupiers say represent their self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk.

The most optimistic estimates foresee the Ukrainian army holding out for only two weeks against any assault that Russian President Vladimir Putin might launch, after Russia’s United Nations ambassador accused Ukraine of starting a civil war. Kiev’s military numbers only 71,000 ground troops and 6,000 airborne troops, according to a recent study by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), as opposed to the 80,000 Russian troops that have been forward-based in high readiness for the past two or three weeks on Ukraine’s borders to the north, east, and south, as shown in commercial satellite photos that NATO just released.

Before Putin’s sudden annexation of Crimea last month, Ukraine never dreamed that it might be invaded by its fellow East Slav Russians. Its border with Russia is therefore virtually undefended. In Ukraine’s two decades of independence, its forces have remained clustered in the west, as in the old Soviet days. Even after quietly moving some troops to the east in recent weeks, the Ukrainian army is inferior now locally in any of the areas where Russian forces are directly threatening Ukraine’s major cities. These include not only Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv in the east, but also Odessa in the south and even the capital Kiev in the center.

Moreover, Ukrainian forces lack Kevlar vests and night-vision goggles, which the United States has so far refused to send Ukraine in its non-lethal aid package. These are said by Ukrainian sources to be banned by Washington as “force multipliers,” despite their defensive nature, and despite the need for body armor for the 99 out of 100 Ukrainian troops that have none. Russian forces, by contrast, are well equipped with vests, goggles, and advanced, encrypted communication gear. The Special Forces that are already said to be infiltrating Ukraine’s border areas with increasing boldness every night can thus see Ukrainian troops, while remaining unseen.

The Ukrainians say that the United States has also banned desperately needed aviation fuel from its non-lethal aid. Corruption in military procurement in the past twenty years has left Ukrainian planes and helicopters—which are in any case vastly outnumbered by Russian aircraft—with very little reconnaissance or ground-support capability. This weakness is exacerbated by the scarcity of fuel.

According to the Daily Beast, the United States is also refusing to share detailed intelligence with Ukraine for fear of revealing sources to Russian spies in Ukraine. Citing Congressional sources, it reports that NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove disagrees with this restraint. He therefore took the unprecedented step of releasing commercial satellite photos of Russian deployments, according to the website, not to inform the media, but to inform Kiev of the specific threat. Breedlove further favors providing Ukraine’s military with more secure communications equipment and other assets to assist its command and control capabilities in the field, according to American defense officials cited in the report.

Other deficiencies in the Ukrainian military posture, according to the RUSI study, are the lack of mass transport to get troops to eastern Ukraine and lack of barracks or camps to house them once they get there.

RUSI points to evidence of the serious expectation of battle by the massed Russian forces on the Ukrainian border in their provision with field hospitals and the high-alert status of Interior Ministry troops “whose purpose is the pacification of occupied populations.”

Despite the grim scenario, the indications from the ground so far are that the underdog Ukrainian military is willing to join Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s suicide watch. The seven decades since the end of World War II in which a stable new peace was taken for granted in Europe may now be ending.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.