Ukraine defense chief resigns; most troops in Crimea expected to switch to Russia
By Matthew Schofield | McClatchy Foreign Staff | Published: March 26, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s interim defense minister resigned Tuesday, citing the shame of losing Crimea to Russia during his one month in office.
A short time later, the Ukrainian parliament voted in an interim replacement, a colonel-general who earlier this month was briefly kidnapped from his post in Crimea.
The departure of Ihor Tenyukh, a politician who belongs to the right-wing Svoboda party, and his replacement by Col. Gen. Mykhailo Koval, a top officer in the country’s border protection service, came as the depth of the defeat in Crimea — and Ukraine’s inability to respond to the crisis — continued to come into focus.
The Defense Ministry said it expected only 4,300 of the 18,000 troops who were stationed in Crimea to remain in the Ukrainian military — less than 24 percent. Others said they expected that most of the rest would join the Russian army, which has offered much higher pay and more generous retirement benefits to any Ukrainian soldier who switches sides.
“They are Russian, and they will serve Russia,” said Sergey Kunitsyn, a former mayor of Sevastopol in Crimea who’s now a member of parliament representing the region. “What else would they do? They speak Russian. Their heritage is Russian. They accept Russian culture. Their loyalty was to Crimea, not Ukraine.”
The government in Kiev apparently has no plan for absorbing the few Ukrainian soldiers who are expected to come to the mainland, and no plan for their evacuation from Crimea.
Reports circulating in the capital said 400 soldiers had banded together in Crimea to try to escape to Ukraine amid expectations that they would attempt to drive out. It was uncertain, if they do make it out, whether they have military jobs waiting for them or housing for their families.
Several lawmakers called the soldiers’ coming to the mainland “a personal decision, not a policy one.”
“These soldiers have family and homes and, in many cases, heritage in Crimea,” said David Zhraniya, a member of parliament. “It’s a personal decision.”
Despite the apparent disarray in Ukraine’s military, few in the Rada, as Ukraine’s parliament is known, were willing to blame Tenyukh, the departing interim defense minister. Most, interviewed after the vote installing Koval in the post, said Tenyukh had done the best he could with a military they admitted was in shambles.
“He wasn’t to blame but it was a catastrophe and someone had to fall on the sword,” said Kunitsyn, the former mayor of Sevastopol.
The military’s disorganization was a reflection of a general sense that Ukraine’s government — which came to office unexpectedly when former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country last month and is expected to govern only until elections in May — is falling apart. Many fear that as organized as the Russians were in taking control of Crimea, they might not even need a military option to plunge Ukraine deeper into crisis, being able to further destabilize the country with a continuing depiction of an out-of-control anti-Russia government.
Lawmakers deny being anti-Russia, as Russian President Vladimir Putin claims. But Russian reports that the interim Ukrainian government is unstable ring true, they acknowledge.
“Most think it must be a joke that they are our enemy, though this joke has gone on for a long time,” said Zhraniya, the parliamentarian. But he quickly added, “Is the Ukrainian government stable? Of course it’s not.”
“This parliament is absolutely not prepared to govern in this crisis. We don’t have the experience, we don’t have unity and we don’t have the support,” he said. “Everyone here thinks of themselves as a short-timer, so there’s no long-term planning, and our day-to-day plans lack consistency.”
Zhraniya’s views were repeated with slightly different phrasing again and again Tuesday at the Rada. Every member of government has the term “interim” in front of his title. The lawmakers who make up the ruling coalition seem to change vote to vote.
Politically, everything points toward the national elections looming on May 25. But in the wake of the last president fleeing for Russia, allegedly with a suitcase of Ukrainian government cash, nobody is sure whether it’s possible to go back to business as usual.
“Our government is weak, and corrupt, and the reality is that right now we really have no state,” said Yegor Sobolev, a leader of the months-long Maidan protests who’s now a member of a government watchdog commission. “We have an enemy at the gate, but we have no army. Everything is a mess, and it is likely that even this government will fall. But if it falls, we have absolutely nothing. So, against all odds, we need our wreck of a state to function.”
As if to underscore the disarray, dozens of members of the Right Sector, a right-wing group that’s blamed by Putin for much of the violence during protests in Kiev and is considered the military wing of the Svoboda political party, gathered in front of the Rada to protest Tenyukh’s resignation. The protesters said they were also angry over the killing Monday of Oleksandr Muzychko, a leader in the group. He was shot outside a cafe in Rivne in western Ukraine after an argument that news reports said involved several groups.
The appearance of the Right Sector in the square prompted a line of uniformed security volunteers to form in front of the Rada building, and for a tense half-hour there were fears that the building might be stormed. But there was no confrontation.
Even in a state that appears to be failing on all levels, perhaps the greatest example of problems is what happened in Crimea. In late February, Russian troops and pro-Russia paramilitary troops took control of the area within days and without a shot fired in resistance, even though the Ukrainian military maintained almost 200 bases in the region.
The Ukrainian government, only days old at the time, recalled the Russian attack on Georgia in 2008 and decided that the wise course was not to provoke the mighty Russian military, not to draw first blood and give Russia an excuse to escalate the violence.
The result was a complete takeover, followed by the organization of a peninsula-wide referendum on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia. Pro-Russia forces and politicians took control of election and government offices, and where they didn’t take control of military bases, Russian forces surrounded them and locked them in. The vote showed 97 percent support for joining Russia, a result that Russia accepted and used to annex the territory.
When the West responded with only weak sanctions, the Ukrainian government was faced with the prospect of an estimated 25,000 of its troops in Crimea being overwhelmed in what was clearly Russian territory. Last week, the Ukrainian government finally issued the order for troops to leave Crimea and return to the mainland.
But it didn’t offer any means to make that happen or to move soldiers’ families, or to find new jobs for the troops. In reports from Crimea, many of the troops there have been quoted as saying they fear they might face treason charges if they make the trip north, especially if they leave behind Ukrainian weapons.
Yuriy Syrotiuk, a parliament member from the Svoboda party — which Putin has used as proof that fascists and radicals have taken over the Ukrainian government — admitted there was little reason to put much hope in the current government. It’s too newly organized, he said.
“We’re still learning,” he said. “I do think we’re more organized than we were a month ago.”
Oleksandr Kuzmuk, a member of parliament who’s a former minister of defense, said it was a bad time to be disorganized.
“The Russians are very well organized,” he said. “We cannot afford to be anything less than ready to match them.”