News from Ukraine today grows increasingly dire as Russian forces dismantle the Ukrainian Navy in Crimea and Kremlin-stoked tensions are now spreading deep into Eastern and Southern Ukraine. How Ukraine would fare in the event of an all-out Russian onslaught, and how likely that invasion might be, are important questions that do not get sufficient informed attention in the Western media. Most accounts you will find about the condition of Ukraine’s military note that it’s long been underfunded and doesn’t have much of a chance in a stand-up fight against Russia.
But what do actual experts think? The Ukrainian news website Tyzhden recently ran a long interview with retired General Mykola Melnyk that’s filled with insights and wisdom about what’s really going on in Ukraine now, militarily speaking. Melnyk’s credentials are impeccable. Although he retired nearly a decade ago, he was one of the founders of independent Ukraine’s military after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He also served as deputy chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR) of the Ukrainian General Staff and Melnyk has important insights on intelligence matters.
This extended interview offers many views worth pondering, not least Melnyk’s description of Yanukovych’s defense minister Pavlo Lebyedev as “indisputably a creature of GRU” – that is, Russian military intelligence. Yet Melnyk castigates Ukraine’s whole political class post-independence, which has left the country weakly defended: he chastises politicos “selling everything right and left between sauna visits. And this went on for the entire twenty-three years of independence, plus permanent terrible underfunding.” Yet, like a solid military man, Melnyk advocates dealing with present realities and not dwelling on the past, particularly as the threat of Russian invasion looms, while admitting that Ukraine has no chance of freeing Crimea from Kremlin occupation without direct NATO help. On the key matter of whether full-scale invasion is imminent, and what might happen then, Melnyk’s comments are important:
Q: The question that is of greatest concern to everybody: is the Ukrainian army with its weaponry capable of stopping the Russians? And will the Russians launch a full-scale military conflict in spite of everything?
A: I won’t lie to you: it will be extremely difficult to stop them with the army alone. The 75,000 troops that were brought in to protect the Olympic Games in Sochi are the best of the best, and they all still remain on our border, plus many other forces have been added in recent weeks. According to my information, there are now about 150,000, maybe even more. Unfortunately, I think Putin will not stop. Indeed, everywhere where there are attempts to destabilize the situation, we should expect invasion. And that means almost the whole South and East of the country. A huge problem is the loss of control over the state security system, something that the Russians have made the most of – and above all, this involves the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Security Service of Ukraine. As far as weapons are concerned, our levels are approximately the same, although Russia’s are more modernized and more accurate. We have enough identical tanks, small arms, as long as we have the crews, plus we need components. We lag behind in aircraft and missile units.
Our weapons are often better than Russia’s, but lately everything was shipped for export and nothing was purchased for domestic use. In view of this, I recommend the new leadership turn its attention to the state-owned enterprise that sold the arms – with exceptional profits for itself and enormous losses for the state. Nevertheless, the patriotic spirit of Ukrainian troops is extremely high. Plus we have an excellent mobilization potential of top-notch military experts. So if Russia launches an attack, there will be very many casualties, but she has no chance of winning, because we have limitless human resources and moral superiority.
Regrettably my assessment is close to General Melnyk’s: Russia is likely to launch a full-scale invasion in an effort to occupy South and East Ukraine, where ethnic Russians exist in some numbers. But this will unleash a terrible war that, like so many of them, will be easy to start and very difficult to end, because there are plenty of Ukrainians who are willing to resist the ancient Muscovite foe to their dying breath. There is still time to avert this catastrophe, let us hope Putin decides to do so – the choice is his.