Support from pro-Russian activists has not been strong, while an increasing number of Ukrainians are ready to fight for their country.
On 27 May three months had passed since “unknown little green men” seized Crimean government buildings and set in motion a chain of events that has been characterised as the most serious challenge to European security since the end of the Cold War. At first glance something rather extraordinary has taken place in Ukraine. Russia annexed Crimea practically without firing a shot, and an army group of more than 20,000 Ukrainian military and navy personnel that was stationed there offered little resistance.
The events left the impression of a very skilful operation executed by Russian Special Operations Forces. This can be also described as the views of Valery Gerasimov (Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces), put into practice, as he believes that asymmetric and indirect action can be more effective than the traditional deployment of armed forces. It is not disputed that the Russian Federation demonstrated determination when it used military might against its neighbour and attacked it fast and with cunning, but it is still worth looking at the activities of both sides during these events. This will help us understand how big a part Russia’s growing military power had in events and to what extent the chaos and internal weakness caused by the transfer of power in Ukraine was favourable to military intervention.
From a military perspective, Russian actions against Ukraine can be divided into two parts. At noon on 26 February, President Putin announced an unexpected military exercise involving about 150,000 men to intimidate Ukraine and create a constant threat of war. OSCE member states were informed about the already ongoing exercise in accordance with the 2011 Vienna Document, but any connection between the exercise and President Viktor Yanukovych’s removal from office that had taken place just a few days earlier was denied. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, an estimated 60,000 Russian soldiers were near the country’s eastern border by mid-March, and by the end of March that army group was fully combat-ready.
News was received of staffs being created to guide military operations and open a field hospital . To frighten the Ukrainian leadership and stop anti-terrorist operations in the east of the country, exercises for different armed services were organised near the border (on 11 March, 24 April and 30 April) and forces were moved directly to the border (on 30–31 March and 24 April). With a few changes, the Russian army group remained nearthe Ukrainian border from 19 to 21 May, after which President Putin gave the order for units to return to their permanent locations; the first trainloads of troops started to move away from the border.
The annexation of Crimea also started with an alert exercise for Russian units. In order to retain the element of surprise, Russia followed the provisions of the Vienna Document, according to which a state does not have to inform other countries about starting unexpected exercises that do not last more than 72 hours. At 04.00 on 27 February, President Putin gave an order to begin an exercise on the Black Sea with more than 36 warships and 7,000 military servicemen, including members of Russia’s rapid reaction forces, airborne forces, marine corps and Main [military] Intelligence Directorate (GRU).1 Russian troops entered the Supreme Council (parliament) and government buildings of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea a little more than an hour later and placed these under their control. 48 hours after the start of the operation, 2,200 Russian servicemen had been brought to Crimea, monitoring and restricting the activities of the Ukrainian armed forces while preparing to take over Ukrainian bases and warships.
So far, very little has been published about how the Ukrainian armed forces reacted to the Russian Special Forces as they arrived at the parliament and government buildings. The media gave the impression that units simply stayed in their barracks and ships in ports, while nothing was done. It has been heard from sources close to the Ukrainian power structure that the leadership of the Ukrainian navy and the Crimea army group actually did react to these events with a clear understanding of the situation and of the necessary steps to be taken. According to this account, naval commanders decided to send their warships to sea; meanwhile, the Ukrainian army started to put governmental buildings under their protection and block connecting routes on the Crimean peninsula. These countermeasures were allegedly ended by an order from Kyiv for the ships to stay in port and the troops “not to submit to provocations”.2 The former Ukrainian Minister of Defence, Ihor Tenyukh, has claimed that it was the previous Chief of the General Staff, Admiral Yuriy Ilyin, who ordered the Ukrainian ships already at sea to return to port, after which the Russian navy blockaded them by sinking obsolete vessels in the mouth of the bay.
An exercise organised by the Ukrainian Crimea army group in October 2013 speaks in favour of the military’s correct situation assessment and attempts at resistance. During this exercise, the 36th Coastal Defence Brigade’s battle group simulated the finding and destroying of enemy troops equipped with light armoured vehicles—the very enemy forces said to have taken over Ukrainian government buildings. Only a few months later, Russia’s “little green men” were moving around on the Crimean peninsula in trucks, Tigr infantry mobility vehicles and BTR-80 and BTR-82 armoured personnel carriers, occupying and securing different target locations.
The rapid and extensive organisation3 of local separatists and their actions against Ukrainian authority raises a question about the actions of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in Crimea. It is obvious that separatist sentiments can emerge or be fuelled in a region where 58 percent of the population is Russian and where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is located.
Some members of the SBU understood this; reportedly, tens and even hundreds of files were compiled about separatists as a result of surveillance activities. However, they were ignored by senior SBU leaders, most of whom fled to Moscow immediately after Yanukovych was overthrown. According to the information that gradually leaked to the public, the senior leadership of the SBU, headed by Oleksandr Yakymenko, was directly tied to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and up to 30 percent of all SBU employees (!) may have been working for various Russian Special Forces.4
The only thing to add here is that, almost immediately after Yanukovych came to power, the SBU’s counter-intelligence priorities were significantly changed. Prior to this, activity against Russian intelligence services had top priority, but from 2010 activity against US intelligence replaced it, and managing Russian “colleagues” dropped to fourth place. Ukraine’s military was constantly underfunded (it had one-fourth the personnel and one-fiftieth the budget of its Russian counterpart, while the Russian army had twice as many tanks and six times more aircraft). Add to this the many purges among the leadership and President Yanukovych’s policy direction (which understated the Russian threat), and we get all the prerequisites for the events that unfolded in eastern Ukraine.
In the first half of March, perhaps only 15–25 percent of the Ukrainian army could have been considered combat-ready—logistics were decayed, morale was low, and there was not much that could stand against the Russian army group that was lined up on the border (within which were subunits of the elite Tamanskaya and Kantemirovskaya divisions). The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence struggled desperately to bring units to wartime readiness with the help of partial mobilisation, and to transport them to the east of the country. Local separatist groups tried to stop the movement of these forces; their actions were even aided by Kyiv, which did not declare a state of emergency or a state or war. Nevertheless, Ukraine succeeded in creating a counterbalance to the Russian army group and convincing the Russian leadership that Ukraine would fight back no matter what.
The attack on the territorial integrity of Ukraine continued asymmetrically. On 7 April, the Donetsk People’s Republic was declared, while the declaration of sovereignty by the Lugansk People’s Republic followed on 11 April. The internal weakness of Ukrainian law enforcement authorities aided the separatists’ actions. The Ministry of Internal Affairs has announced that in the Donetsk and Lugansk Oblast, more than 17,000 militia officers failed to fulfil their duties and joined the separatists. There were people in the SBU units in both oblasts who joined the separatists and collaborated with members of the Russian Special Forces (both FSB and GRU) who arrived on Ukrainian territory.
Conducting an anti-terrorist operation that started on 7 April clearly illustrated all the above-mentioned problems—from betrayal to incompetence. In Sloviansk, the presence in the city of three SBU anti-terrorist Alfa commando members was betrayed to the separatists. The Ukrainian units participating in the operation sometimes went hungry for days and had not been given clear orders; leaders of the operation often preferred taking no action to taking responsibility and decisive steps.
Even so, the pressure on separatists is slowly increasing. This can be largely attributed to the creation and deployment of volunteer National Guard battalions and home guard units , slight improvements in leadership and coordination, and the deployment of heavy military equipment. The first area in Ukraine to be freed from the insurgents, by the beginning of June, was Krasnyi Lyman. A new potential threat is the strengthening insurgent attacks on Ukrainian border guards, with the aim of opening the border to fighters and armaments from Russia.
If the Ukrainian border does open, the 10,000–20,000 separatists now active in Eastern Ukraine could receive substantial reinforcement; Ukraine would need a lot more forces than it currently has under its command to suppress the insurgency. Yet, the creation of such forces is realistic and the military crisis is solvable—also due to the fact that the support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine has not been strong, while an increasing number of Ukrainians are ready to fight for their country.
1 The Russian Federation organized a similar exercise on 28 March last year. That exercise also started at 04.00. Неожиданные учения на Черном море, Интерфакс, 28 March 2013.
2 Д.Тымчук, О предательстве, gazeta.ua/ru/blog/42707/o-predatelstve (28 March 2014)
3 According to specified data, 50–60% of voters supported joining Russia in the referendum held on 16 March 2014, whereas 30–50% of people entitled to vote took part of the referendum. www.president-sovet.ru/structure/gruppa_po_migrats… (25 April 2014)
4 30% личного состава СБУ были агентами ФСБ и ГРУ – эксперт. news.liga.net/news/politics/1483915-30_lichnogo_so…. ЛIГА.Новости (27 April 2013)
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.