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A year after Russia took Crimea, stronger Ukraine military braces for long fight

A display in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, titled "The forces fight, defend and help." The posters encourage public donations to the troops, and present evidence that Russia is actively engaged in an invasion of Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2015
A display in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, titled "The forces fight, defend and help." The posters encourage public donations to the troops, and present evidence that Russia is actively engaged in an invasion of Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2015 McClatchy

The irony of a year of war with Russia is that Ukraine today is far better prepared to defend itself than it was last March, after Russian troops invaded the Crimean peninsula.

It’s been a year of hard lessons and costs that few thought Ukraine would be able to bear. Ukraine today remains mired in governmental and financial crises. It’s now spending about 5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. And that isn’t enough.

Yet despite the fighting in the southeast and the shortfall of money and equipment, Ukraine’s military is significantly stronger than it was when Crimea fell with barely a shot being fired.

“The reality is that we didn’t have any choice in the matter,” said Dmytro Tymchuk, a member of Parliament who was the director of Ukraine’s Center for Military and Political Research a year ago. “We have severe economic and social crises today, but if we don’t devote enough effort and money to defense, the question becomes the existence of Ukraine.”

Politicians admit that the collection boxes at churches and museums and even on the streets asking for support for troops have been essential. Frequently, troops are asked to outfit themselves on their way to battle, and families with enough to spare often will outfit a husband or son and several other members of his unit.

In the past year, the Ukrainian military has expanded in total manpower, from 150,000 to 250,000, and in combat-ready troops, which were a paltry few thousand last March but now number more than 50,000.

Still, there’s doubt that will be enough. Contrary to the notion that Ukraine is embroiled in a civil war with “pro-Russia separatists,” Ukrainian experts and officials say the evidence is overwhelming that they’re standing against the Russian military.

Ukrainian experts say that at least 60 percent of the troops fighting against the Ukrainian military in the southeast are Russian, though they’re uncertain how many of them are regular army and how many are special mercenary forces that Russia sends specifically for this fight.

The weapons, ammunition, equipment, funding, tactics and leadership are almost entirely Russian, Ukrainian experts say.

A Russian newspaper report this week seemed to back those claims. The paper, Novaya Gazeta, which has been critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine policy, quoted a Russian regular-army soldier being treated for war injuries in a hospital in the Donetsk province of Ukraine as saying he and his battalion had been sent in from Buryatia, a Russian republic just north of Mongolia. That’s about 4,000 miles from Ukraine.

With that evidence of Russian involvement, few expect the cease-fire in the southeast region known as Donbas to hold long.

“This is Russia’s war,” said Leonid Polyakov, who was Ukraine’s minister of defense during the pro-West presidency of Viktor Yushchenko and remains one of this nation’s top military experts. “Ukraine does not want this war. Ukraine has been forced into this fight, and to continue in this fight, by continuing Russian aggression.”

A year ago, Polyakov said, Ukraine was wholly unprepared. The official Ukrainian defense doctrine – a document, he notes, that politicians have been too overwhelmed by war to change –proclaimed that Ukraine had no enemies. In that document, Russia is considered a friend and protector.

Such thinking during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych led to the dismantling and hollowing out of the Ukrainian military. Polyakov said funding was about 10 percent of what was needed to field an effective military, based on the notion that the country had no enemies.

When Putin ordered his Black Sea troops to leave their bases in Crimea a year ago – in violation of a treaty between the countries – and then to force Ukrainian officials from their offices, Ukraine had no recourse.

“We had nothing,” Polyakov said. “We had no way to deal with the Russian Black Sea fleet, an equal number of Russian special forces and 100,000 Russian troops engaged in ‘exercises’ along our eastern border. We were in a peacetime phase.”

In less than three weeks, Russia had held a referendum to show that most Crimeans favored union with Russia, and Putin had signed legislation formalizing the annexation, on March 18. Three weeks after that, so-called Russian separatists seized buildings in the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, demanding a referendum of their own.

These days, an uneasy truce appears to be holding in Donbas, as the area that includes Donetsk and Luhansk is known. But Ukrainian officials and military point out that the cease-fire, which Russia agree to in February, is tenuous.

On Monday and Tuesday, said Anantoliy Stelmakh, the spokesman for what the Ukrainian government calls the Anti-Terrorist Operation in Donbas, “pro-Russia militants sporadically fired at our positions with small arms, trying to provoke an armed response.”

When Crimea fell to Russia, Polyakov noted, Ukraine lost more than half the troops it had based there. About 50 percent simply switched uniforms and joined the Russian military. Another 10 percent retired, meaning 40 percent moved to what remained of Ukraine and were reassigned.

As the Crimea-based troops were considered the elite of the Ukrainian military, their loss meant that improving overall strength has been even more difficult.

“Right now, our personnel, equipment and leadership have proven capable,” Polyakov said. “We are fighting the Russian military, and we are still undermanned and under-equipped, but we hold strong defensive positions, and we can inflict them with higher damage than we sustain.”

Viktor Pynzenyk, a member of Parliament who’s served as Ukraine’s finance minister three times and was one of the original architects of the country’s modern currency, the hryvnia, said financing the war was well beyond the capabilities of impoverished Donbas. On his frequent trips to the region to visit family, he’d never heard talk of war or rebellion before the hostilities broke out.

“Weapons are expensive, and they’re not found easily, certainly not in Donbas shops,” he said. “It’s clear who our enemy is here. Ukraine does not want this war, and will not continue fighting it once Russia stops this invasion. Until they decide to leave Ukraine in peace, however, what choice do we have?”

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