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Russia Is Tightening Its Grip on Crimea

The occupying force appears to be executing a three-phase operation.

Photo by Frederick Paxton. This story is from VICE News, our new news website. See more and sign up now at vicenews.com

A little more than a week after the Ukrainian Parliament ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and Putin's Winter Olympics in Sochi came to an end, Russian troops are now in control over Crimea, a chunk of Ukraine a bit larger than Vermont.

Russian troops are consolidating their hold on the region, and Ukraine's still-shaky interim government is trying to organise a coherent response. While Western attention over the last week had been focused on nearby Russian military exercises, those troops may not be the ones directly intervening in Ukraine.

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On Saturday Reuters reported that newly-installed Ukrainian defence minister Ihor Tenyukh stated that the Russian military had recently brought some 6,000 additional personnel into Ukraine. This suggests, although does not confirm, that unmarked Russian troops (i.e. wearing no flags or unit identification) were brought into the Russian naval base at Sevastopol several days in advance. The forces may have then set up their operations and staged their maneuvers directly from the base. It's possible that the subsequent incursions into Crimea proceeded from the naval base, rather than coming directly over the border.

There are reports throughout the pro-Russian eastern regions of Ukraine involving pro-Russian protesters who have seized government buildings and raised the Russian flag. Similar events unfolded just a few days ago when protesters in Crimea stormed local government buildings, raising Russian flags. This has led some to speculate that protests elsewhere in the nation will provide a pretext for Russian intervention there as well.

It is unlikely that events will play out elsewhere in the country the same way that they have in Crimea. The peninsula is of much greater importance to Moscow than the rest of Ukraine. The port of Sevastopol in Crimea has been the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since 1783 – the same year Great Britain granted the United States their independence. As Russia’s only warm-water port, it is vital to the Russian navy.

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It appears now that the Russian troops carrying out “readiness exercises” right next door to Ukraine are effectively a large reserve contingent, ready to move in should Ukrainian forces attempt to eject the Russian troops in Crimea.

The occupying force appears to be executing a three-phase operation. They first seized key transport and communications nodes, taking control of airports, setting up roadblocks and moving into other key checkpoints. This allowed Russia to prevent a large movement of people in or out of the area, and restricted the Ukrainian government's response options.

In the second phase, Russian troops spread across Crimea and moved into position to forestall any armed response from the Ukrainian forces already in the area. Ukraine doesn’t maintain a particularly large or robust military presence on the peninsula, and is not equipped to mount offensive or defensive ground operations without support from the mainland.

The largest Ukrainian force on the peninsula is the 36th Brigade of Ukrainian Navy Coastal Defence stationed near the town of Perevalnoe. The contingent has about 3,500 troops, but very limited heavy weapons. The 36th Brigade is suited for a border protection role; it is not equipped to conduct high-intensity operations against regular military units. Russian troops have not assaulted the base, but a contingent of about 40 soldiers mounted in ten armoured personnel carriers and ten trucks has moved next to the base – effectively confining the Ukrainian troops to a kind of house arrest. So far the situation in Perevalnoe has remained calm, according to VICE News reports.

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A photo from the ongoing standoff between Russian and Ukrainian forces at the army base in Perevalnoe, Crimea. pic.twitter.com/EDxMFUYk8Y

— VICE News (@vicenews) March 2, 2014

The third phase of operations is just getting under way, as Russian forces move into position to defend their gains. Most the Russian forces deployed thus far have been infantry in trucks and APCs. These troops are more than enough for operations against police or paramilitary forces, but would be woefully under-equipped against Ukrainian regular army troops if left unsupported.

Therefore, Russia has started to deploy heavier units into Crimea. A recent CNN report showed Russian self-propelled artillery units on the move (although it incorrectly identified the vehicles as tanks). Recently confirmed video also shows the operational deployment of several flights of Russian helicopters, including Mi-24 Hind gunships. Both artillery and gunships would provide support necessary to defend against a counteroffensive by the Ukrainian military.

In a meeting over the weekend, Defense Minister Tenyukh indicated that Ukrainian forces had been placed on high alert. Ukraine called up its reserves Sunday morning. Bringing regular army troops to full wartime footing is a process that usually takes at least a couple days. If the reserve forces are to be mobilised and activated as full-fledged military units – as opposed to being handed guns and wished the best of luck – the process could take considerably longer.

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Ukrainian and Russian troops used to serve alongside each other before the Soviet Union fell apart. This common heritage means that they use fairly similar equipment, organisations and tactics. The Ukrainian army, while considerably smaller than the overall Russian army, lists a strength of about 150,000 troops. Similarly, Russia is likely to have more modern equipment. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian army (if not the air force or navy) can more or less be considered a competitor to regular Russian army forces.

The Ukrainian army is, on its own, large enough to eject the Russian troops from Crimea, but their ability to hold out against the larger Russian force of 150,000 carrying out “readiness exercises” next door is not as clear. In a long-term conflict, Russia maintains a decisive advantage in manpower and personnel over Ukraine.

According to a recent Daily Beast report, Congressional staffers say they were told that the Russian forces conducting the exercises next to Ukraine have not deployed with the compliment of auxiliary units (such as medical support) that would be expected if the main body of the Russian force were preparing for imminent large-scale, high-intensity operations. The politics of the situation could simply mean that a Ukrainian force capable of holding its ground and giving Russia a bloody nose might be sufficient to force a political resolution.

As of the time of writing, VICE News has received no information suggesting that US or other Western forces are preparing any sort of military response or intervention.

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