As I write, Russian forces, reportedly close to 100,000 troops, are massing on the eastern borders of Ukraine for a possible invasion. The Kremlin is either about to start a major war, or wants the world to think it is: there is no third choice now. Given the scheduled referendum in the Crimea this Sunday, smart money has it that Putin, if he really launches an all-out push for Ukraine – which, as I’ve already explained, could be a disastrous move on his part – it will come early next week. Needless to add, this scenario brings chills to me and to anyone who understands the stakes in what would immediately be the biggest European war since 1945.
Yet that invasion, with its terrible consequences, is what many in Ukraine now expect. That mood of resignation, and what a Russian invasion might look like, are elaborated well in a new piece in Novoye Vremya (The New Times), a Moscow newsmagazine that is a rare outlet for anti-Kremlin views in Russia. The article by Maksim Shveyts, titled “Kyiv: Expecting War,” follows in toto, with my analysis following.
Kyiv: Expecting War – Ukraine is forming a National Guard and preparing in earnest for the defense of the capital against the aggressor
In Kyiv, Russia’s possible plans to invade mainland Ukraine do not appear to anyone simply to be a fantasy. Many recall how during his latest “appearance to the people” in Rostov-na-Donu, ex-President Viktor Yanukovych once again said that he considers himself the legitimate head of state and also promised to return to Kyiv “soon”. The fugitive president could only do this accompanied by the Russian military, local experts are convinced. And, indeed, they do not rule out scenarios in which Russian tanks enter the city.
Vice Admiral Ihor Kabanenko, ex-deputy chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine General Staff, said that Russia is preparing an air and ground offensive frontal operation against the country. Testifying to this, Kabanenko says, will be the next steps of the Russian authorities: first, “the training of airborne forces of the Russian Federation led by General Shamanov with the involvement of strategic aviation. Second, completion of the formation of an echelon, massing of air defense, and the formation of an air defense force grouping. And, finally, continuation of a deep special operation on the territory of Ukraine and the buildup of a battle group in Crimea and the East.”
Kabanenko called on the country’s political leadership to immediately mobilize reserves and to arm the citizenry. This retired military officer is certain that it is necessary to declare a patriotic war against the occupiers, form a supreme command staff, and began armed resistance to Russia’s plans to invade mainland Ukraine.
Stanislav Shum, director of Ekonomika publishers, says, “the next city where Russian troops are to be expected is Kyiv”: “Because if the Ukrainian Army is as weak as the defense minister maintains, there’s no point from the military perspective in attacking the regions if the capital can be taken. Again, without a single shot being fired, to the cannonade of protests and profound concern of the West,” this expert believes. “Events subsequently will unfold as rapidly as in the final days of February, only in reverse order,” he explains.
Escalation of Tension
Kyiv really does have grounds for fears. On 13 March, the Russian Federation (RF) Defense Ministry announced exercises to be conducted on the eastern border with Ukraine. The same day in Inkerman [in Crimea], the Russian military sealed off a weapons depot. Two explosive ordnance storage units – of the Ukrainian Navy and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – are stationed there. It was then learned that RF service personnel had sealed off the Ukrainian Ai-Petri Battalion. They posted thirty men with assault rifles around the perimeter and said that any transport traveling in the direction of the Ukrainian battalion was “subject to neutralization.” Meanwhile, the Crimean “self-defense force” prepared for an assault on the Ukrainian military unit in Simferopol, with the demand that the fuel depot be handed over to it. The new authorities of Crimea, led by the unrecognized Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, have taken control of the Feodosiya oil transshipment terminal.
On the whole, the mood of the military on the Crimean peninsula has over the past week changed considerably. New Times’ sources in the Ukrainian Navy report that while in the first days of the conflict the Russian military often behaved politely and proposed patrolling together with Ukrainian soldiers, in recent days they have been calling themselves the “bosses” and have been talking to Ukrainians exclusively in superior tones, ordering them around.
Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, commander of the 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade stationed at the Bel’bek airfield, became known to the whole country after he defended his right to that airfield. On Thursday, he called the national leadership, the Defense Ministry, and the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff. Mamchur claims in this call that ultimatums from Russian servicemen are becoming increasingly serious, and he asked the command, therefore, to make a decision as quickly as possible about guidance for his personnel in the event of a direct threat.
“The Russian Federation has in the Luhansk and Chernihiv regions massed an assault force, heavy equipment, and military helicopters. Simultaneously, pro-Russian forces in Kharkiv are preparing an ‘assembly rally’ for the 16th, at which they plan to make a decision on a referendum based on the Crimean model,” independent political analyst Alexey Blyuminov points out. “Considering that the Kharkiv Region Council has refused to conduct any referendums for such purposes, I do not rule out attempts at a strong-arm seizure of the regional council by pro-Russian assault units and their adoption of an appeal to the Russian regime for the commitment of troops. The same provocation is possible in Luhansk region also,” he warns. This expert says the FSB continues to operate in the country’s eastern regions.
American CIA Director John Brennan said on 12 March that a full-scale invasion of Russian troops onto the territory of Ukraine will begin after the referendum in Crimea. The Ukrainian political analyst Pavlo Nuss shares this viewpoint: “On 17-18 March, regular troops of the Russian Federation will begin an invasion of Ukraine,” he says. This expert believes the invasion will begin simultaneously from the south and east of the country. “They will begin the occupation of Kherson and Mykolaiv from Crimea, attempting to take control of the shoreline of the Dnieper. They will attempt simultaneously to enter the territory of Mariupol and Berdyansk to establish control over the Azov region plus the Sea of Azov. This will happen, if we consider the invader’s ‘maritime interest’ scenario. The mobilization of the RF army at the borders of our motherland testifies that Russia is prepared for any scenario of military operations,” Nuss explains.
Guard to the Rescue
On 13 March, the Rada (Parliament) of Ukraine voted to form a National Guard. According to the document, this will be a large military unit with law-enforcement functions as part of the Interior Ministry. The strength level of the Guard, according to the document, could be up to 60,000 men. It will be formed by detachments of troops of the Interior Ministry and representatives of the Maydan Self-Defense Force, and also by some ordinary citizens of Ukraine who have experience of actual military operations and who have already registered at enlistment offices as volunteers in the event of aggression. The Defense Ministry says that there are about 40,000 Ukrainians in the latter group.
Andriy Parubiy, secretary of the National Security Council, said that the National Guard is seventy percent manned by volunteers.
As far as the armed forces of Ukraine are concerned, they are in a frankly deplorable condition. Ihor Tenyukh, Ukraine’s defense minister, rated the capacity of the nation’s armed forces for switching to the highest readiness status as “unsatisfactorily low.” This official noted the “dispiriting state of training of the personnel of the Armed Forces, the insufficient manning of units with specialists, and the absence of equipment and arms in good working order.” In the ground forces, whose total strength is 41,000 men, “only 6,000 servicemen are really combat-ready,” Tenyukh emphasized. “More than seventy percent of the armored equipment is composed of obsolescent and worn-out Soviet-made T-64 tanks with a time in service of thirty years and more,” Tenyukh provided as an example.
What are Ukrainian politicians to do in this situation? Political analyst Taras Berezovets, president of Berta Communications, believes that local authorities need to “be more decisive in their appeals to the EU and the United States for the imposition of stiff economic and visa sanctions by the EU and the United States against Russian officials and the Russian president’s closest associates.”
“I believe that the probability of war is very high,” political analyst Alexey Blyuminov sums up, in turn. And he adds: “Locally in Crimea this is an almost 100 percent probability, outside of Crimea, over seventy percent. The events of 16 March (the Crimean referendum) could be the kickoff. Hearing one round go off would be sufficient – from either side.”
The notion of a coup de main by Russian forces against Kyiv, led by airborne (VDV) troops, with groundwork paved by intelligence operatives, that was elaborated by VADM Kabanenko, is entirely consistent with Moscow’s longstanding doctrine – think Czechoslovakia 1968 or Afghanistan 1979, among many possible examples – of how to execute quick, decisive operations for political effect. It is also consistent with reports this week of VDV forces marshaling near the Ukrainian border and of Russian military intelligence (GRU) operatives caught in Ukraine spying and prepping local ethnic Russians for action.
The real question, then, is would Ukrainians prove to be more like Czechs in 1968 – passive and accepting of aggression – or more like Afghans in 1979 – full of fight to the bitter end against the invader? While I sense few Pashtun-like tendencies among any Ukrainians, I have little doubt that there are plenty of them who are willing to resist if Russian forces really move on Kyiv, the capital. That would be a real war quickly, no matter the dilapidated condition of Ukraine’s military. As the U.S. military learned to its great chagrin over the last decade, relatively small numbers of determined insurgents with small arms, RPGs, and IEDs can cause enormous pain to even the most powerful occupying army.
The Kremlin would be wise to recall that resistance to Soviet occupation in Western Ukraine lasted into the 1950s and cost many thousands of lives; it took brutal Stalinist methods of mass repression that even Putin would not dare attempt in the 21st century to bring Ukraine fully under Kremlin rule after World War II. Clearer heads in Moscow know this and I can only hope they are being listened to now. I suspect we will know the answer quite soon.