Yes Russia Controls Crimea, and Yes Those Really are Russian Troops

March 13, 2014
Russian soldiers in Crimea in March 2014 carry VSS Vintorez silenced sniper rifles known to be given to GRU spetsnaz

Other than the repeated denunciations of the west aggravating the situation by a coterie of Russian government officials (Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu dismissed claims that Russian troops were in Crimea as an “act of provocation” and “utter nonsense”), one would be hard pressed to find any serious commentator still denying that the troops blockading Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea are Russian troops but rather local militia or self-defense forces. Even Andranik Migranyan—who is a Kremlin advisor and runs a tiny Kremlin funded think tank in New York which acts as an academic or policy version of RT—has sought to justify the presence of Russian troops in Crimea under the terms of the agreement regarding Russia’s Black Sea Fleet which allows up to 25,000 Russian troops in the peninsula.

But the decision to occupy Crimea—and it should be noted Crimea has not been officially annexed just yet—has vexed most analysts of Russian politics, both in terms of the harm that such a move has done to Russia’s international status and repeated statements about the authority of the Security Council, to the more practical issue of potentially supporting the financially decrepit region whose standards of living are essentially half of the nearby Russian regions of Krasnodar or Stavropol (it could cost as much as $6 billion to support the economy and pensioners). Whatever the rationale, whether to pressure Kiev to listen a little more to Russian concerns or to ensure the status of the Black Sea Fleet from any revisionist policy by the new government, there have been plenty of comparisons of the current situation to the 2008 war with Georgia.

The 2008 war with Georgia did more than demonstrate Russia’s views on Eurasia and the nations that it considers falling under its sphere of influence; it also exposed glaring deficiencies within the Russian military. Along with its nuclear capability and Security Council seat, a powerful Russian military is an essential part of a return by Russia to a globally influential great power. That is why in the aftermath of the 2008 war, Russia initiated a massive modernizatsiia of its military (which among other things, sought to increasingly professionalize the military and replace conscripts with kontraktniki or contract soldiers along with a massive equipment spending spree. The State Armaments Plan calls for equipping the military with 70% modern equipment by 2020). It is in this light that we could possibly see another reason for the occupation of Crimea: to demonstrate an improved military capability.

Among the many things that identify the troops in Crimea as Russian, other than them admitting it to TV cameras, has been their professionalism and equipment. It has been remarkable that such tense situations have not devolved into violence or even the shooting by a young soldier with an itchy trigger finger. From the seizure of the Crimean parliament and airport, to the blockading of Ukrainian military facilities, the control and professionalism has been remarkable. Additionally, the troops are very well equipped, from the weaponry (including the silenced VSS Vintorez sniper rifle only available to elite units in the Russian military) to Tigr armored vehicles (whose license plates identify not only that they are from Russia but what Military District they are from).

When looking at the situation and the troops on the ground, it is fairly safe to assume that the units involved are most assuredly from the elite Airborne (VDV) and Spetsnaz units (not to mention the 810th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade at Sevastopol). The 7th Guards Air Assault Division is based right next to Crimea in Novorossisk, and there have also been reports of units from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division from Pskov, the 31st Guards Airborne Brigade from Ulyanovsk and the 45th Special Forces Reconnaissance Regiment located in Kubinka outside Moscow. The 22nd Spetsnaz brigade has also been alleged to be located in Crimea.

In the event of a full-fledged war there is no doubt that Russia would win, with units from the Western Military District along with those from the Southern MD able to mobilize within a short time frame. But beyond the speculation on units in the region, the Southern Military District, which covers the North Caucasus and is next to Ukraine, has some of the most modern and well-staffed military units due to it covering the restive Caucasus—including the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And in the event more troops are needed, there are numerous Interior Ministry (VV) forces based in the Caucasus region that could be called upon—including additional Spetsnaz (OSN) units. Even units from the Central Military District could be mobilized within a month to support operations.

However, despite the improvements, the Russian military still suffers from major inadequacies ranging from inadequate recruitment of kontraktniki and understaffed units to corruption and inadequate equipment. A recently released Congressional Research Service report stated: “Russia’s economic growth in recent years has supported greatly increased defense spending to restructure the armed forces and improve their quality. Mismanagement, changes in plans, corruption, manning issues, and economic constraints have complicated this restructuring.”

Luckily events have not spiraled into open conflict, but that has not stopped the sabre rattling and snap military drills meant to unnerve Ukraine—along with sending a message to the EU and other neighboring states (After the ouster of Yanukovych, Putin ordered drills involving armies from the Western and Central MD and about 150,000 troops. The 98th Guards Airborne Division was also ordered to conduct drills and to move into a state of high readiness on Tuesday). However, despite its military’s larger size, Moscow cannot mobilize its entire force against the Ukraine and take units away from the Far East and the volatile North Caucasus. This means that only a fraction of the total military strength would actually be able to be involved in a wider conflict.

Opposing the invasion would be Ukraine’s military, which, although severely underfunded (Russia spends about $78 billion on its military compared to Ukraine’s $1.6 billion) and significantly smaller than Russia’s, is still manifestly better than Georgia’s. As NYU Professor Mark Galeotti noted in the Washington Post; “The Russian military could roll into Ukraine, but it would be up for a fight. The Ukrainians are rather more ready than the Georgians.” Despite that fact, there are two significant factors that make the threat of a further Russian incursion all the more worrying: the need to mobilize most of the military and that most units are still stationed in the west of Ukraine.

On Tuesday, acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said that Ukraine has only 6,000 combat ready infantry and called for the creation of a National Guard, but those figures and the calls for a new force are most likely exaggerations meant to goad NATO and the west into providing more significant security guarantees. However, despite ending conscription last year and moving towards an all-volunteer military, much of the Ukrainian military is still reliant on Soviet methodology, including most forces still being positioned in the West of the country, which focused on a potential conflict with NATO. Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, summarizes the allocation of Ukrainian forces in the country,

“There are two mechanized infantry brigades, a tank brigade, and an artillery brigade in the east, though, as well as an airborne brigade and a tactical aviation brigade. Compare this to western Ukraine, where there are five mechanized infantry brigades, two artillery brigades, a tank brigade, a rocket brigade, four tactical aviation brigades, two army aviation regiments, and an air mobile brigade. Also worth highlighting the forces located in the south, near the Crimea: one mechanized infantry brigade, a tactical aviation brigade, an air mobile brigade and an army aviation regiment.”

Like Russia, Ukraine also has interior ministry troops (VV) that it would be able to call upon to help support the regular military.

Additionally, as noted before, the vast disparity in funding means that the Ukrainian level of preparedness and equipment is woefully inadequate. Despite these shortcomings, “The Ukrainian military has evolved really quite a long way from its Soviet roots,” Galeotti notes, “It has got quite a strong esprit de corps, quite a strong culture of service to the state.” This has been exemplified by the lack of defections in Crimea, and the continued resistance by Ukrainian military personnel to surrender their arms and bases to Russian forces.

It is clear that any potential shooting conflict between Ukraine and Russia would be dramatically different from the 2008 war with Georgia (except for Russia’s inevitable military victory), both due to the increased capability of Ukrainian forces—compared to Georgia—and because of Russia’s modernizatsiia efforts. Let’s hope we don’t get an opportunity to see just how different.