As Moscow moves to consolidate its de facto control over the Crimean peninsula by incorporating the territory into the Russian Federation, it is worth examining and understanding the military factors in the Kremlin’s risk taking policy since the onset of the crisis. An entirely underestimated aspect of this set of calculations in Western media coverage and in government statements relates to how Moscow perceived the condition of Ukraine’s Armed Forces on the eve of Russian movements across Crimea. Equally, an added dimension in the military-political assessment reached by Moscow prior to commencing its overall strategy to dismember the Ukrainian state is rooted in the Kremlin’s assessment of the crisis as Eurasian rather than European in its nature; across a number of key indicators, Moscow read the situation in Ukraine quite differently to how it was perceived in Western capitals (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 14, 17).
A fundamental error in Western observations concerning the risk of conflict escalation stemmed from making simple comparisons between the sizes and relative strengths of the Russian and Ukrainian Armed Forces. In August 2008, Russia’s military operations in Georgia had little to do with such factors. Rather, those operations reflected the choice of force groupings and speed of Russian movement into the theatre of operations, pre-planning and the use of operational strategy to sever the country’s main arteries rendering opposing forces with few realistic options to prolong the war (https://strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/Articles/09spring/mcdermott.pdf).
Several military-strategic factors, viewed from Moscow, provided a decisive edge, which allowed the controversial policy of moving troops from the Black Sea Fleet base in southern Crimea to fan out across the peninsula, while incurring a low risk of conflict escalation. This stems from the fact that Ukraine’s military bases on its mainland territory are a Soviet legacy; they are located primarily in the western part of the country as a residual part of the Soviet Union’s planning to resist an invasion by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from the West. This set of imbalances in Russia’s favor served to reduce the risk of military conflict (Author’s interviews with Russian defense experts, March 17). From a military perspective, the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine are significantly more difficult to defend. Russian forces acted quickly to cut off Crimea from the mainland, rendering any subsequent actions directed from Kyiv considerably riskier.
Moreover, there is considerable evidence from non-governmental Russian sources to indicate that the Russian assessment of Ukraine’s Armed Forces played a role in the decision making: the Kremlin judged the risk of a reaction by opposing Armed Forces as relatively low. In turn, this stems from three critical, yet overlooked points in Western analyses: specifically, the absence of large-scale military exercises in Ukraine since independence, possessing a conscript army, and the extremely low level of combat readiness (Author’s interviews with retired Russian military officers, March 17; https://russiamil.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/putins-potentially-costly-blunder-in-ukraine/). Russian intelligence assessments of these weaknesses were no doubt more detailed, but the general weaknesses noted in Russian reporting highlights the scale of the problems.
Security correspondent Aleksey Nikolskiy observed in Vedomosti on March 10 that several days had passed after the deployment of “Russian Spetsnaz [special forces] and assault troops” in Crimea, and the risk of war between Russia and Ukraine remained low. The “mobilization” promised by the government in Kyiv had proved to be a “bluff,” and subsequent reports of the movement of Ukrainian troops did not result in an escalation of the possible conflict. Indeed, Ukrainian forces that were moved from their military bases arrived at training ranges, rather than being dispatched to an imaginary “front” to consolidate defensive positions. Nikolskiy noted that the Ukrainian Armed Forces had not conducted serious levels of military exercises in the past 23 years, let alone adopting measures to enhance combat readiness since the crisis erupted. Some of the Ukrainian troop movements were also linked to securing military equipment to avoid seizure by civilians. Nikolskiy concluded that an armed confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces was “extremely unlikely” (Vedomosti, March 10).
According to senior Ukrainian defense officials, that assessment was evidently highly accurate. The inspection of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, retaining a conscript structure, had “discovered” that among an estimated 41,000 Ground Forces personnel 6,000 were deemed “combat ready,” which was confirmed by Ukrainian Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh (https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/23838791/ukraina-ne-boec).
Moscow-based military analysts told Jamestown that they considered Ukraine’s Armed Forces combat readiness as “very low,” while one analyst described it as “close to zero.” With limited military capabilities, low levels of combat readiness among a conscript force that had no credible training to defend Ukrainian territory, the government in Kyiv never really had “military options” at its disposal. Russia’s non-military operation using troops in a non-combat role across Crimea, blockading the Black Sea routes to prevent the use of the Ukrainian Navy, effectively denied any scope for a military response. Talk in Kyiv of “mobilization” or raising a “national guard” was not interpreted seriously in Russian military circles, compounded by reports from Kyiv of requesting donations to help the military (https://www.mil.gov.ua/index.php?lang=ua&part=news&sub=read&id=32829).
Indeed, Moscow’s assessment of low combat readiness in Ukraine’s Armed Forces as a factor in the Kremlin’s decision making can be seen in the relatively low figures involved in Russian troop exercises, such as the 8,000 Ground Forces and Airborne Forces personnel that took part in exercises in Southern Military District maneuvers reported on March 12 (Interfax, RIA Novosti, March 12, 13). These figures are consistent with Russian contingency planning for a smaller scale conflict with Ukraine, if Kyiv had ordered some type of military response. When the crisis escalated and resulted in the downfall of Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow judged that the support for the revolution had not spread to the southern and eastern parts of the country. This estimation, coupled with a number of other factors, as well as the judgment that the interim government may be too weak to respond, and an assessment of Ukraine’s military capabilities as, at best, weak, facilitated the decision to act. Moscow’s dismembering of Ukraine subsequently was a low-risk use of its military forces predicated upon potential enemy combatant weakness; Russia’s risks, therefore, lie in the economic and political realms.