Ukraine: Russians refuse to back down

UKRAINE stood “on the brink of disaster” last night, as its government called up emergency reservists while Russia continued to ramp up hostilities between the neighbouring countries.
A woman sweeps away broken glass as two unidentified armed men guard the local government building in Simferopol. Picture: APA woman sweeps away broken glass as two unidentified armed men guard the local government building in Simferopol. Picture: AP
A woman sweeps away broken glass as two unidentified armed men guard the local government building in Simferopol. Picture: AP

President Vladimir Putin refused to back down despite global condemnation of the invasion of the Crimean peninsula, which belonged to Russia until 1954.

Ukraine’s prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk said: “If Putin wants to be the president who started the war between two neighbouring and friendly countries, between Ukraine and Russia … he has reached this target within a few inches. We are on the brink of disaster.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He added: “This is not a threat: this is actually the declaration of war to my country.”

Hundreds of unidentified gunmen surrounded an infantry base in the region yesterday. The convoy of at least 13 troop vehicles, with Russian number plates, and four armoured vehicles with mounted machine guns, prevented anyone entering or leaving the base in Privolnoye.

The outnumbered Ukrainians placed a tank at the base’s gate, leaving the two sides in a tense stand-off.

Russian troops demanded that Ukrainians disarmed and, while some refused, no shots were fired.

Late on Saturday, Mr Turchy-nov had ordered Ukraine’s armed forces to be at full readiness and stepped-up security at nuclear power plants, airports and other strategic points.

The country’s defence ministry has ordered a call up, which would potentially be all men up to the age of 40, although it is doubtful the Ukrainian military has either the weapons or uniforms for such a number.

While Russian troops have seized the Crimean peninsula, they have not yet entered the mainland.

Fears for eastern Ukrainian cities have been raised further however, as Russia has staged war games with 150,000 troops along the land border.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In many of those cities demonstrators have marched and raised Russian flags over government buildings, although Kiev claims these were moves orchestrated by Moscow to justify a wider invasion.

The new government in Kiev has been powerless to react to Russian military tactics.

Armed men in uniforms without insignia have moved freely about the key peninsula, occupying airports, smashing equipment at an airbase and besieging the Privolnoye base.

A representative of the base commander said troops on both sides had reached agreement so no blood would be shed.

“We are ready to protect the grounds and our military equipment,” Valery Boiko said. “We hope for a compromise to be reached.”

Igor Mamchev, a Ukrainian navy colonel at another base outside Simferopol, told Ukrainian television that a lorryload of Russian troops had arrived at his checkpoint and told his forces to lay down their arms.

“I replied that, as I am a member of the armed forces of Ukraine, under orders of the Ukrainian navy, there could be no discussion of disarmament. In case of any attempt to enter the military base, we will use all means, up to lethal force.

“We are military people, who have given our oath to the people of Ukraine and will carry out our duty until the end.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Russia has its key Black Sea Fleet stationed on the Crimean peninsula, where nearly 60 per cent of residents identify themselves as Russian.

Ukraine has a population of 46 million with divided loyalties between Russia and Europe, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the EU, while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support. It has insisted it has no intention of threatening Russian speakers.

Earlier, Ukraine said it had withdrawn coastguard vessels from Sevastopol and another Crimean port and stationed them elsewhere.

Ukraine is not a member of Nato so the US and Europe are not obliged to come to its defence. However, it has taken part in some alliance military exercises and contributed troops, which may complicate the West’s role.

In Kiev’s Independence Square, where protesters had camped out for months, thousands demonstrated against Russian military action.

Speakers delivered rousing orations and placards read: “Putin, hands off Ukraine!”

One protester named only as Oleh, an advertising executive cooking over a big open fire at the square where he has been camped for three months, said: “If there is a need to protect the nation, we will go and defend the nation

“If Putin wants to take Ukraine for himself, he will fail. We want to live freely and we will live freely.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Background: Peninsula has a special place in Russians’ hearts

IT IS perhaps not surprising that president Vladimir Putin has been so willing to risk international condemnation over Crimea.

The peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea is far more than a former Soviet territory – it is deeply entwined with Russia’s history. It only became part of Ukraine when Nikita Khrushchev gifted it as a present in 1954.

The peninsula was the seat of a the Tatar state until it was conquered by the Russians in the 18th century. Most Russians feel a great affinity with Ukraine as the cradle of their own civilisation, and Crimea in particular. And the feeling, in Crimea at least, is reciprocated, with talk of a referendum on the region’s future status.

The large proportion of Russian speakers in Crimea has seen Russian fortunes revive under Mr Putin, while the Ukrainian economy has suffered from ineffective and corrupt governance.

From Mr Putin’s perspective, the revolution against his ally Viktor Yanukovich was an embarrassment while the eyes of the world were on the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The close links between Russia and Crimea may now prove almost impossible to break asunder.

Analysis: Real danger it is only a matter of time before the fighting starts, writes Matthew Day

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

SO FAR, not a shot has been fired in Russia’s bloodless armed takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula but there are real dangers that it is only a matter of time before fighting breaks out between regular units of the Russian and Ukrainian armies.

Ukraine has ordered its forces to be “combat ready” which means that the 130,000 personnel of all three of its armed services are now preparing for battle. The government has also demanded the mobilisation of its reserves. This could mean up to a million men under 40, who once did their national service, could find themselves getting their country’s call and departing for barracks.

On paper, at least, this is an impressive number, and Ukraine’s armed forces also boast some formidable equipment. The country was once home to a large chunk of the Soviet Union’s defence industry and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute lists Ukraine as the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter.

Amongst its products that could give the Russian army a bloody nose is the T-84 Oplot main battle bank. Much like its Russian counterpart, in the air the Ukrainian air force flies sophisticated aircraft such as the Mig 29 and the Su-27.

The Ukrainian armed forces have also undergone substantial reforms aimed at moving them away from the cumbersome structures and techniques of the Cold War Red Army. The army now uses more flexible and mobile brigades instead of divisions.

In theory this means if a major conflict broke out it is unlikely Russia will be able to roll over Ukrainian forces like they did with their enemies during the 2008 Georgian war without suffering significant casualties.

But all is not well with the Ukrainian military machine. While the end to conscription has brought more professionalism to the army, the practice was only dropped at the end of last year, which means conscripts still form 40 per cent of the Ukrainian army.

Perhaps, more significantly, the spending required to transform the army, navy and air force into a potent force that would make even a gung-ho Kremlin think twice has just not appeared. Instead the military, like so much of the Ukrainian state, has had to make do the best it can with extremely limited resources.

Unfortunately for Ukraine Russian spending has gone the other way. Spending on soldiers and arms in Russia has about doubled since 2007 and this year budget comes to a huge £46.5 billion.