Kiev fear­ful of Rus­sia troops af­ter de­feats


Ukraine’s be­lea­guered forces have faced prob­lems all of their own mak­ing as they’ve failed to re­take sep­a­ratist ter­ri­to­ries dur­ing a year of con­flict — poor lead­er­ship, few sup­plies, bad co­or­di­na­tion.

But the main rea­son Kiev has strug­gled to re­claim the rebel re­gions, some an­a­lysts in the West and Ukraine say, is that it has been fac­ing off against thou­sands of regular Rus­sian troops that Moscow poured in to bol­ster the in­sur­gency de­spite blan­ket de­nials from the Krem­lin.

“We are not talk­ing about rebel forces, we are talk­ing about Rus­sian troops,” Peter Fel­stead, an edi­tor at the Lon­don-based IHS Jane’s De­fence Weekly, told AFP.

“This con­flict would not be an is­sue were they not there. They are in­trin­si­cally in­volved in what is go­ing on.”

Over the past year Moscow has been un­re­lent­ing in re­ject­ing claims from Ukraine, NATO and Wash­ing­ton that it has sent troops across the un­pro­tected bor­der.

But West­ern and Ukrainian an­a­lysts back up Kiev’s al­le­ga­tions that Moscow or­ches­trated the sep­a­ratist re­bel­lion of April 2014, and has been di­rectly in­volved in fight­ing that has claimed more than 6,000 lives since.

The start of the con­flict in the east came on the back of the ouster of Krem­lin-backed leader Vik­tor Yanukovych by pro­tes­tors in Kiev and Moscow’s de­ploy­ment of un­marked troops to seize Ukraine’s Crimea penin­sula.

In the wake of th­ese seis­mic events that saw Ukraine lurch to­wards Europe and shat­tered Rus­sia’s ties with the West, an­a­lysts said Putin gam­bled on his men fo­ment­ing a re­bel­lion to en­sure the Krem­lin’s in­flu­ence in its ex-Soviet neigh­bor.

“Their role is to put into ef­fect Putin’s will which is at the very least to cre­ate a buf­fer zone be­tween Ukraine and Rus­sia ... and maybe to link up with Crimea,” Fel­stead said.

The con­stant sup­ply of weapons and ammunition over the Rus­sian bor­der has also al­lowed rebels to equip them­selves bet­ter than their Ukrainian op­po­nents, said Fel­stead.

‘Thou­sands’ of Rus­sian Troops

Although poorly equipped and trained, af­ter months of fight­ing the Ukrainian armed forces did at one point seem to come close to crush­ing the re­bel­lion over the sum­mer.

They forced the rebels out of one key strong­hold and nearly cut off the main in­sur­gent-held city of Donetsk from the Rus­sian bor­der.

But sud­denly, af­ter weeks of gov­ern­ment ad­vances, the ta­bles turned. That, ex­perts say, was down to the ar­rival of thou­sands of Rus­sian troops.

Some 3,000 to 6,500 sol­diers crossed over the bor­der, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Rus­sian arms con­trol ex­pert Igor Sutya­gin, pub­lished by UK think tank Royal United Ser­vices In­sti­tute for De­fence and Se­cu­rity Stud­ies (RUSI).

Ukraine claimed they then helped sur­round its sol­diers try­ing to re­cap­ture the city of Ilo­vaisk in the Donetsk re­gion, trap­ping them and killing hun­dreds over a few days.

“The pres­ence of large num­bers of Rus­sian troops ... has since be­come a per­ma­nent fac­tor in the con­flict,” said Sutya­gin, who was jailed in Rus­sia on es­pi­onage charges be­fore be­ing handed to the West.

A se­nior Ukrainian

se­cu­rity of­fi­cial told AFP on con­di­tion of anonymity that Kiev es­ti­mated the num­ber of Rus­sian troops in Ukraine peaked at around 15,000 in Fe­bru­ary dur­ing the fierce fight­ing for the town of De­balt­seve.

Putin, how­ever, claims that Ukraine’s poorly trained forces are be­ing beaten by a group of for­mer “min­ers and trac­tor driv­ers” who have cap­tured weapons aban­doned by the Ukraini­ans.

But those on the other side fiercely dis­agree, say­ing Rus­sia has sent in its lat­est weapons to bol­ster the rebels.

The sep­a­ratists now boast “a big­ger army ... (tanks, ar­mored per­son­nel ve­hi­cles, heavy ar­tillery, mis­siles) than some coun­tries in NATO and Europe,” the U.S. Em­bassy in Rus­sia tweeted in Fe­bru­ary.

Olek­siy Mel­nyk, an ex­pert from Kiev think tank the Razumkov Cen­ter, al­leged that at the height of the fight­ing they “used up to 150 tons of ammunition per day.”

Gov­ern­ments in the West also claim that the sep­a­ratist forces are us­ing weapons that have never been given to Ukrainian troops.

Th­ese in­clude a new ver­sion of the Soviet T-72 tank and the Tor- nado mul­ti­ple-rocket launcher that was only de­liv­ered to the Rus­sian army in 2011, ac­cord­ing to the Ukrainian se­cu­rity of­fi­cial.

Man­age­ment Cri­sis

But Rus­sian mil­i­tary might is not the only rea­son for Kiev’s bat­tle­field de­feats.

The new gov­ern­ment in­her­ited a creak­ing mil­i­tary — a le­gacy of the Soviet era — that steadily de­te­ri­o­rated since Ukraine gained in­de­pen­dence in 1991.

It com­prised only 6,000 op­er­a­tional troops be­fore fight­ing broke out last year, ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates.

More than 50,000 gov­ern­ment­con­trolled sol­diers are cur­rently en­gaged in eastern op­er­a­tions, but a deep “cri­sis in man­age­ment” caused by a se­vere short­age of skilled com­man­ders has led to poor de­ci­sion mak­ing and sowed in­dis­ci­pline among the ranks, said the ex­perts.

As­sis­tance from sup­port­ers in the West­ern world and vol­un­teers has helped the army to re­stock es­sen­tial kit such as uni­forms, hel­mets and amour. But this “is only the start,” ac­knowl­edged the Ukrainian of­fi­cial.

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