The Ukrainian government called for the mobilization of 130,000 troops on Monday, threatening to take on the Russian military if tensions on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula boil over into a full-scale armed conflict between the two nations. There's a major problem for leaders in Kiev, however: While Ukraine's military is stronger than the one Russia devastated when it conquered parts of Georgia in 2008, it is still under-funded, undermanned and poorly equipped to take on a vastly superior foe, experts said.
The tensions simmered as Russia and Ukraine also exchanged a war of words about their intentions. Russian forces seized or surrounded multiple Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, and Ukraine accused Russia of issuing an ultimatum to Ukrainian leaders to withdraw their forces, or watch their bases be stormed. Russia countered that it had issued no such demands, leaving it unclear what could occur.
Regardless, Ukraine is in trouble if Russia escalates its use of military force in Crimea. Ukraine's military has shrunk dramatically since 1991, when the Soviet Union fell to pieces and the Cold War ended. At that time, there were some 700,000 active-duty Ukrainian forces. The military there now numbers closer to 130,000, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer told Foreign Policy. Just as significantly, Ukraine has done little to upgrade their military equipment and weapons since then, leaving it a generation behind if facing the muscular Russian military.
The Ukrainian military was able to keep the best of its military equipment as it down-sized, but "has had a very rough time of it in budgets going back almost 20 years," Pifer, now a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, told FP. "They have purchased some new systems, but it's probably pretty much what they inherited in 1991."
The status of the Ukrainian military has become an increasingly important issue since Russia conquered and occupied Crimea late last week. Officials in the U.S., Ukraine, and other allied countries have decried the move as a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, while Russia has said it is a necessary move to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea, a border peninsula where a majority of the population remains loyal to ousted President Victor Yanukovych and sees the new pro-Western government in Kiev as illegitimate.
The Ukrainian military has affiliated itself with the United States and other allied countries for years, sending troops to Afghanistan, the Balkans, and on anti-piracy missions, said Adm. James Stavridis (ret.), who left the U.S. military as the supreme allied commander of NATO last year.
"They operated effectively with us during the Libyan crisis," Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told FP. "While not highly skilled or particularly well-equipped, I found their troops to be willing and capable within the bounds of their training and the restrictions of their less-than-optimal logistics."
Those shortcomings now loom large, however. On the navy side, for example, Ukraine's military has about 22 vessels of various kinds, including five missile cruisers, according to Jane's Defence Weekly. Ukraine had at least one other cruiser, the Ukraina, under construction, but delayed it several years ago and was considering allowing several other countries, including Russia, to use it as recently as last year. Russia was said to be blocking two Ukrainian military ships into port on Monday, and Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had demanded that their crews surrender. Russia, by contrast, has dozens in the Crimean port of Sevastopol alone.
Ukraine also has a fleet of about 1,100 tanks, but hundreds of them are now rusting in a "tank grave yard" in the Ukrainian town of Kharkiv, about 20 miles from the Russian border, according to the Daily Mail newspaper in London. The best of the bunch is the T-84, an upgraded version of the Soviet-era T-80 tank. It has about a dozen of those.
Ukraine has about 200 combat aircraft, including a single squadron of Russian-built SU-27 fighter jets based in Crimea, one of which was spotted over the weekend armed with an unusually large 10-missile armament. But Russia's fighter jet fleet is much larger, and it is expanding its fleet of new SU-30SM planes through a deal between Putin's government and Irkut, the Russian aircraft maker. Overall, it is believed to have about 1,400 combat aircraft, according to the website Flightglobal.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and some of its allies have worked regularly with the Ukrainian military, primarily to build familiarity for when leaders decide to partner on missions. But F. Stephen Larrabee, an expert on European security with the Rand Corporation, said much of it lately has been geared toward modernizing the organization of Ukraine's military. The force decided to drop its longtime policy of conscription last year, which includes compulsory military service for many. The Ukrainians are now realigning their military to fight in brigade-size formations including a few thousand soldiers, rather than larger division formations that cannot react as quickly.
"They are not equipped necessarily to stop an invasion or intervention by Russian forces," said Larrabee, who served on the White House National Security Council staff during the Cold War. "What the U.S. has concentrated on is trying to get them to be more interoperable with NATO forces."
Ukraine's small military budget also has prevented the U.S. from selling many vehicles and weapons, and armaments, said Pifer, the former ambassador. The United States gave Humvees, communication equipment and other gear to the Ukrainians within the last decade as they deployed forces alongside the U.S. in Iraq, but it has no big-ticket foreign military sales programs with Kiev that would provide, for instance, new attack helicopters or jets.
Ukraine, on the other hand, has continued to build tanks with its armor factories and export them to other countries. In one example, the country's state-run arms exporter, Ukrspecexport, reached a $100 million deal with the Ethiopian government last year to sell 200 tanks. If the tensions with Russia persist, Kiev might come to wish it had kept them at home.
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images