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Counting All the Guns in Crimea

Trying to determine how much and what kind of military firepower is involved in a conflict can be tough to do. And Crimea is no different.
Photo via Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

Gathering and analyzing intelligence on military forces deployed during a conflict is not easy. The information is tough to find, often incomplete, and frequently contradictory — in fact, it can obscure as much as it reveals. But there's no denying that the Crimean crisis has been and continues to be shaped by both the threat and the use of force. So it's still worth it to gather and analyze that intelligence.


In military terms, the Russian army is the main character in the story of the Crimea invasion. Over the last decade, Russia has been working hard to modernize its army, switching from a conscript force to one made up of professional soldiers, and developing and buying new equipment after more than a decade of neglect following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst focusing on Europe and the former Soviet Union for Jane’s, Russia has deployed forces that include the 76th Airborne Division, the 7th Guards Air Assault Division, and the 346th Independent Spetsnaz Brigade, a.k.a. Russian special forces. These are small, independently operating infantry units that aren’t heavily armed, but which are much better trained and equipped than the rest of the Russian military. They can move very quickly, which is ideal for, say, the rapid seizure of of a sovereign territory.

However, Russia has also deployed a complete Motor Rifle Brigade, which is a different matter altogether. A motor rifle brigade is the rough equivalent to a US Brigade Combat Team and has (in theory) about 4,500 men, between 40 and 80 tanks, and 70 artillery pieces (howitzers, rocket launchers, and large mortars). Formations like these are so large that they come equipped with all the support — communications, combat engineering, medical units, and so on — that they need to operate independently.


A Russian S-300 air defense moves by rail into the Crimean interior after being shipped by ferry from Russia.

When commanders want to be ready for large-scale, high-intensity conflict, they tend to deploy large units together as a whole. Modern combined-arms warfare can involve a lot of moving parts in an unbelievably chaotic environment, which is why when that kind of fighting is on the menu, commanders are reluctant to mix and match different combat and support units that have never worked together before. So what does it mean that Russia has deployed this force? It's a sign that Russian commanders may be anticipating the need to switch from a strategy of seizing checkpoints and airports with small numbers of infantry to handling large, conventional military engagements.

The forces bopping around the Russian countryside on “exercises” are much harder to figure. But heck, some of them might actually be there to train, rather than merely being there to scare Ukrainians.

Turns out, there really are honest-to-goodness Crimean Self-Defense Forces — not just cagey Russian troops who Putin identifies as such — and VICE News actually met some. This kind of recruiting effort for citizen soldiers may simply help authorities identify all the passionate people who evidently don’t have day jobs and are itching to get their hands on heavy weapons. And they may be useful for manning checkpoints and terrorizing civilians. However, if the fighting starts and turns into the real deal, lots of Crimean Self-Defense Force troops are going to die for Crimean independence.


Hopping over the hastily built barricade, we come to the Ukrainian forces. Recently, the new Ukrainian defense minister announced that the country had a mere 6,000 combat-ready soldiers despite an on-paper strength of 41,000 troops. (In total, Ukraine has about 150,000 personnel in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and other branches.) So it turns out that the Ukrainian military is nothing more than some infantry units, some helicopter squadrons, and a few Naval vessels that are in decent shape. Realizing they were slightly overmatched by the Russians, Ukrainians called for a nationwide mobilization of reserves. This call to arms to nobly fight for one's country was met with a patriotic response rate of … 1.5 percent. That means you were as likely to find a mobilized Ukrainian reservist as you were to find a Crimean who voted against secession. Apparently, having Russian guns pointed at you is remarkably persuasive.

The American units might function as a tripwire; the death of just one US fighting man or woman at the hands of a Russian missile could dramatically change the political character of the Crimean conflict in the US.

In the face of a potential titanic and heroic test of the valor of the Ukrainian military, the bright chaps in Kiev decided that this would be the best time for a major reorganization of the armed forces and called for the formation of a National Guard. Those who responded could either join the National Guard right away or be placed in the reserves. Best guess suggests that they were hoping for 40,000 people to respond to the call to arms, of whom 20,000 would actually decide to stick around and fight, and some day wanted to see a full strength as high as 60,000.


Some of the people who did show up to volunteer were actually Euromaidan protestors, who wanted to do their part to stand against any Russian incursion. VICE News also met some of those brave souls as they arrived at training. The Ukrainian military did their best to give them an inspiring, morale-boosting welcome, but sadly, they will likely fare about as well as their Crimean volunteer counterparts should serious fighting break out. (Meaning, not well at all.)

Ukrainian units are deploying to the border with Russia and making a show of digging in and fortifying. While they wouldn't be much more than a speed bump for Russian tanks should Putin make a play for eastern Ukraine, they would at least be a speed bump in possession of antitank missiles and artillery and would take out a handful of Russians before inevitably being overrun. This means that at the very least, Russia wouldn't be able to scoot in quickly and quietly and present the world with another fait accompli.

What then of the world’s mightiest, most expensive military? Well, it would appear that the United States is going to sit this one out. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise from a country that has been fighting in Afghanistan for 13 years, finished an eight-year war in Iraq relatively recently, and elected (and re-elected) a president with the understanding that he would get the US the hell out of the war business. Sure, the administration loves its drone strikes and Special Forces raids, but these days, no American official — with the possible exception of Senator John McCain — is reliably in favor of blowing up things in all corners of the globe.


Yes, the US has sent reinforcements to its NATO allies … if you can call 18 combat aircraft, 12 of which were already based in Italy, reinforcements. The US is also sending a ship to the Black Sea, but that's one lone destroyer that was already headed there for scheduled exercises. All of that said, these units might function as a strategic tripwire; the death of just one US fighting man or woman at the hands of a Russian missile could dramatically change the political character of the conflict in the US.

Leveraging the proximity of an aircraft carrier that happened to be moving through the region is one of the strongest moves Obama could have made that stills fall under the broader category of not doing anything.

The US has also decided to equip the Ukrainian military … if you can call non-threatening things like food "equipment." Currently, Ukrainians are stalking the halls of Congress begging anyone who will listen for weapons. It's not working.

A lot of this caution is a consequence of the fact that the US spent the last decade proudly proclaiming the Cold War over, and that therefore keeping substantial amounts of American forces in Europe was antiquated bunkum. The US started drawing down its forces in Europe in 2004 or so; its final tank left the continent last year. It’s been an age and a day since there’s been a large-scale mobilization of ground forces to Europe, and it would likely be a logistical mess of epic proportions.

The US, however, has not forgotten its carriers. The Nimitz-class USS George H.W. Bush and its battle group were on their way to a regularly scheduled deployment in the Middle East when the White House and Pentagon realized that their route would take them right past all this Crimean business. Thus, the carrier group has opted to loiter in the eastern Mediterranean … you know … just in case. Leveraging the proximity of an aircraft carrier (a.k.a. a fully armed and equipped air base) that happened to be moving through the region is actually one of the strongest moves Obama could have made that stills fall under the broader category of not actually doing anything. Putin has been kind enough to acknowledge the gesture, scheduling maneuvers in the area with Russia's own naval aviation assets — not that they’d be able to slow down a US carrier group all that much.

Despite all the efforts to find a peaceful resolution to Crimea, there is cause for alarm. “We assess a second wave of Russian military reinforcements is currently heading toward western Russia," Muzyka told VICE News. "Train loads of Russian heavy artillery, main battle tanks, armored troop carriers, and rocket launchers have been revealed in social media posts heading westwards from central Russia.”

This could just be an abundance of caution on the part of Russian military planners — showing up short-handed to a war is ill advised — and Putin has shown a preference for moving forces into the region to afford room for strategic maneuvering down the road. On the other hand, it’s never safe to discount the kinds of violent mistakes that can happen when heavily armed adversaries are living in separate realities.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan