Could Ukraine’s armed forces have prevailed in Crimea?
The Obolon District Court in Kyiv is hearing a case in which former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych is being accused of treason and of aiding and abetting the start of war. Most recently, Admiral Ihor Teniukh, who was Minister of Defense in February and March 2014, and Verkhovna Rada Representative to Control the Activities of the Defense Ministry Gen. Volodymyr Zamana, who was Chief of General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces prior to February 19, 2014, testified before the court.
Adm. Teniukh stated that on February 28, 2014, during a meeting of the National Security Council chaired by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov he had announced: “Today we can bring together a military force of over 5,000 servicemen from across the country who are capable of carrying out military duties. We can toss them at Crimea but this won’t resolve the problem in the peninsula. We will simply station them there... And what about the thousands of kilometers of borders and Russia’s preparations for an invasion? If they enter Chernihiv Oblast in the morning, they’ll be in Kyiv by evening!”
Later, during his speech in the Verkhovna Rada, in his comments to the press, and during the recent court hearing, Adm. Teniukh consistently maintained this position.
Meanwhile, Gen. Zamana categorically objected to Teniukh’s position both during service meetings, and in comments and interviews that he gave to the press. At the Feb. 8, 2018, court hearing, the court transcript shows that he testified in Russian: “We had serious problems with providing, equipping and training the Armed Forces. Basically, they were combat-ready. We had about 165,000 servicemen, of whom 90-100,000 were combat-ready, armed and equipped. These were our rapid-reaction forces. Another 30-35,000 were forces on alert and they needed to be properly equipped. Then there were our expanded forces: formations and military units that needed to be mobilized and prepared for combat. All this needed about 30-45 days. At that point, we would have had 220,000 men.”
When the court asked Adm. Teniukh what he thought of the information that Gen. Zamana had provided Turchynov and others, the Admiral said that it often did not reflect reality.
In short, Teniukh thought that Ukraine had only 5,000 combat-ready forces in February 2014, while Zamana thought the country had 100,000. The combat-readiness of any armed forces is assessed based on complicated factors but the overall number is one of the most basic indicators. Which of the two military commanders is telling the truth is fundamental to the question whether or not Ukraine was capable of holding on to Crimea in 2014.
This issue can be looked at in-depth, based exclusively on reliable official sources.
First of all, the Defense Minister and the Chief of General Staff are those authorized individuals who answer directly to the Commander-in-Chief, that is, to the President.
According to current legislation and legislated provisions, the Ministry of Defense carries out defense-related policy, directs the Armed Forces politically and administratively, and establishes the basis for their construction and how they should develop. General Staff engages in strategic planning for the use of the Armed Forces and other military units, plans and executes defensive measures, and handles the day-to-day operation of the Armed Forces. Given this, as Commander of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Gen. Zamana should have been more authoritative in the matter of how large the forces were in February-March 2014 than Adm. Teniukh, who had just been called out of retirement.
But Gen. Zamana was repeating official numbers from the period that he was in charge of the General Staff. According to a Bill “On the numbers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine for 2013” signed into law by Viktor Yanukovych, as of Dec. 31, 2013, there were 168,201 individuals serving in the forces: 125,482 military and the remainder civilian staff. At first glance, these numbers are impressive and are supported by a solid source like the 2013 White Paper on the Armed Forces of Ukraine, an official publication of the Defense Ministry. At the end of the document, there are pretty tables with the organization and military personnel of the Infantry, Air Force and Marines of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, complete with numbers of personnel and military equipment.
For instance, the tables show that the Air Force had 160 combat aircraft. But the real numbers have long ago been calculated and made public: at the start of Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, there were only about 20 operational fighters. The remaining aircraft no longer flew and simply existed only on paper. Maybe tens of thousands of the service personnel in Gen. Zamana’s comments, Yanukovych’s bills and the nice tables in the 2013 White Paper were also only on paper, the “dead souls” of Gogol’s famous novel? A partial answer to this issue can be found in that same 2013 White Paper, but in the body of the paper.
2013 was the last year that young Ukrainians were drafted into the military for fixed terms. Moreover, after the fall draft, President Yanukovych announced that mandatory military service in the Armed Forces of Ukraine was being dropped altogether. According to the 2013 White Paper, at the end of that year Ukraine’s Armed Forces had:
7,500 young men who had been drafted in the spring of 2013,
5,000 young men who had been drafted in the fall of 2013.
The next page compares the numbers of sergeants and contractual soldiers to the numbers of drafted soldiers: 69.6% to 30.4%. It’s pretty easy to calculate, based on these figures, that Ukraine’s Armed Forces had at most 28,600 contractual soldiers at the end of 2013. But this number is also not that straightforward. Many officers have said that, in 2013, entire “female” divisions were deployed, in communications and logistics. On March 7, just before Women’s Day, the Defense Ministry decided to sentimentally greet all the women who were serving and working in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. At that point, females constituted:
1,600 contractual officers
4,700 contractual sergeants
9,770 contracted soldiers
over 30,000 civilians
for a total of 47,000.
Among female service personnel, there have been very few like the legendary pilot Nadia Savchenko, that is, combat troops. Traditionally, most of them are the daughters or wives of officers. So, half of the sergeants and contractual rank-and-file at the end of 2013 were women involved in relatively peaceful specializations.
The other half of the contractual soldiers was also problematic. Age-wise, a large portion of them was young men aged 18-20. At the beginning of 2013, when it became known that the draft would soon be dropped altogether, many young men of draft age who had nothing better to do immediately showed up at their local draft board and signed up for service. It was especially popular in one-time army towns where unemployment was high but there were army units of one kind or another where they could find work and make some money. The combat readiness of these contractual soldiers, given their age, experience and knowledge levels, was nearly zero.
All told, then we have 72,500 service personnel and 45,000 civilian workers, the majority of which are women. To distinguish the combat component in these numbers, we need to remove the civilians, the women, the draftees who cannot by law be used in combat, the military who betrayed their country in Crimea, officers from various commands, military academies, auxiliary units, most of the Air Force units, and so on. The net result is 5-6,000 officers and contractual soldiers—exactly the number Admiral Teniukh was talking about at the council meeting February 28, 2014.
As a result of actions taken by the leadership of the country and the Ukrainian Armed Forces, by 2012-2013 the situation looked like this:
There were 50,000 fewer service personnel than was being officially declared and the budget funds allocated for this number of “dead souls” were successfully transferred into the pockets of higher-ups in the defense ministry.
Most combat positions were occupied by absolutely non-combat individuals: bureaucrats in epaulettes, raw youths and women.
The real number of combat-ready military equipment was around 8-10 times less than declared in the 2013 White Paper and other official documents.
On one hand, it’s easy enough to place all the blame on Viktor Yanukovych and ex-Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev, who is also under the protection of the RF today. On the other hand, the real fault lies with Gen. Zamana and other generals who were then in top positions in the Defense Ministry, commanded various parts of the Armed Forces, and so on. It’s hard to believe that Gen. Zamana had no idea about the real numbers and condition of the UAF. If this really were the case, however, then that says plenty about the pathetic level of professionalism among Ukrainian generals at that time.
In conclusion, we have the testimony of an officer of the 36th Separate Coast Guard Brigade of the Marine Forces, which was stationed in the village of Perevalniy in Crimea. At that point, there were indisputably only around servicemen in the brigade and its artillery group, of whom only one third moved to mainland Ukraine. The rest turned out to be traitors.
During the Russian Federation’s military aggression in Crimea, the 36th Brigade had around 40 tanks, 60 combat infantry vehicles and powerful artillery—all of which also figured in the pretty tables of the 2013 White Paper. In reality, according to the documented testimony of Ihor Pidopryhora, the equipment for which ammunition had been received and which had batteries and crews included: 3 tanks, 10 BMP-2s and 6 120 mm mortars.
That was all that could have been used against directly the aggressor by those units of the UAF that were stationed on the Crimean peninsula.
Yaroslav Tynchenko is Deputy Director of the National Museum of Military History, Research Department
The Ukrainian Week asks American think-tankers and diplomats three questions: 1. Is Ukraine seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence in the US? 2. Why a part of the American establishment believes that Ukraine should be attributed to Russia’s orbit? 3. What can Ukraine do to counter this approach?