KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian Crimea is gone. It’s Russian — at least for now.
That’s the reality in Ukraine today, as an estimated 30,000 Russian troops appear to have occupied this nation’s southern peninsula, as diplomatic relations between Russia and Ukraine are officially off, and as a vote in Crimea on whether to be Russian looms in less than 10 days. Military and political experts agree that, at least in the short term, Crimea is Russian.
In fact, they note that as long as Russian President Vladimir Putin remains committed to a military approach to an area that’s best known as a sunny vacation destination, there’s little Ukraine can do, even if the March 16 referendum turns out to be, as most here think, a sham or Russia has violated international law.
But Ukraine has no military options, a reality that Ukraine’s opinion makers accept.
“For Ukraine, open war in Crimea is absolutely impossible,” said Oleksandr Martynenko, the director general of the Ukrainian Interfax news agency. “There is no Ukrainian belief that this could end well.”
And for good reasons. Russian forces hold a vast advantage over their Ukrainian counterparts. Russia’s standing army numbers about 800,000 troops; Ukraine’s, about 150,000. Russia can field 15,000 tanks; Ukraine, about 4,000. Russia has 3,000 military aircraft; Ukraine, about 400.
It’s not just the numbers. Russia’s forces are better trained, and they’re equipped with more modern weapons. Ukraine still uses mostly old Soviet-era weapons, a result of the fact that in recent years the Ukrainian Parliament has funded the military at 10 percent of what was needed to modernize.
The joke in this country for years has been the desire of Ukrainian sailors to leave for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, where the sailors earn twice as much.
Military experts note that the approved Ukrainian budget covered salaries, uniforms, food and some training, and almost nothing for new weapons. The bottom line is that the military in no way compares to Russia’s, which is considered to trail only that of the United States in traditional might.
Experts agree that an apt comparison is Ukrainian forces to the Georgian military, which was blitzed by Russia in 2008. That comparison, they say, tilts toward the much smaller Georgia. George Zakarahvili, a minister-counselor at Georgia’s embassy here, said after a meeting on Ukrainian defense options that “it’s hard to give any advice based on our conflict. In the end, it is important to avoid spilling first blood.”
Military experts agree that must be Ukraine’s top priority: Avoid giving Russia an excuse to flex its muscles.
The priority list for Ukraine looks something like this:
- Avoid spilling first blood.
- Hope that U.S. and European Union diplomatic pressure works.
- Hope that Putin has a change of heart and withdraws from Crimea.
- Wait for the inevitable local insurrection to weaken Russian resolve to remain in Crimea.
There’s no thought of sending the Ukrainian army into Crimea to expel the Russians.
“For now, yes, Crimea is gone from us,” said Serhiy Zhurets, the director of the Center for Army Conversion and Disarmament Studies in Kiev, and a longtime top adviser to the Ukrainian military. “It is unthinkable that we won’t get it back, but that is long-term thinking. If the short-term solution has to be military, we are not up to the standards of the Russian military.”
Ukrainians hoping for a military solution hold out hope that the United States and Great Britain will take an interest. They point to Ukraine’s agreement in 1994 to give up the world’s third largest nuclear weapons arsenal in exchange for security assurances from the United States, Britain and Russia. But the agreement doesn’t require the United States to take any action to guarantee Ukraine’s security, said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who’s an expert on the agreement, only that it take a strong interest in assuring it.
“It’s a huge miscalculation if Ukrainians think the U.S. is coming in,” Pifer said.
Vladimir Grek, a longtime Ukrainian Defense Ministry official who advises the ministry now from his position as the president of the Association of Ukrainian Defense Technologies, said the military’s glaring weaknesses had been well known for some time but ignored by politicians and the general population.
“The reason is simple,” he said. “To modernize a military costs money, and Ukraine doesn’t have money.”
Even with a modernized force, though, the current crisis goes well beyond what Ukrainian military planners would have ever contemplated.
“The Ukrainian military is primarily set up to assist in international efforts, and secondly to assure the defense of Ukraine,” Grek said. “But to defend against an invasion by Russia, this was never imagined.”
He noted that only about 5 percent of Ukrainian forces, and very little of the country’s scant modern equipment, are based in Crimea. Still, Russians are thought to have destroyed as many as 30 Ukrainian aircraft and at least parts of the Ukrainian air defense in the region.
One of the nation’s elite brigades — battle-hardened as a partner to the United States in Iraq — is surrounded in Perevalne, having dug a defensive trench around its camp. It remains armed and ready to fight, and, Grek said, could force its way out of its predicament.
“But what then?” he asked.
Fighting would also draw first blood. And the Ukrainian fear is that Russia is only waiting for Ukrainian military provocation to justify a more intense response.
Last week in Odessa, at a meeting of Russian nationalists, someone shouted, “New Russia.” In the time since, a map of what was known as New Russia in the 18th century has appeared on numerous websites in Russia and Ukraine. The map shows at least half of Ukraine now as part of New Russia.
Grek says that map looks like a warning, and is thought to be Russian propaganda, perhaps initially put out by the FSB, the modern-day version of the KGB spy agency. In addition, there are rumors of Russian soldiers in Ukrainian uniforms in the area preparing provocations, reminiscent of German Nazi forces in Polish guise creating a reason to invade Poland in 1939.
It adds up, according to one official who asked not to be identified because of his sensitive role in dealing with Russia, to a simple fact: “If the price of a successful Ukrainian revolution — one that breaks this nation away from Russia — is Crimea, maybe that’s simply good business.”