KIEV, Ukraine — The new government of Ukraine called an emergency session of its national security council Saturday in the face of the Russian military’s seizure of Crimea, but the leaders are facing a grim reality: Their armed forces are ill equipped to try to reconquer the region militarily.
Crimea has always been a vital base for the Soviet and then Russian navy, serving as the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, which has controlled the waters off southern Russia since 1783. After a period of tension following Ukraine’s independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia got to keep its base in Crimea under its own control on a lease, extended until at least 2042 by the now-ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych.
But the Ukrainian military has only a token force in the autonomous region of Crimea — a lightly armed brigade of about 3,500 people, equipped with artillery and light weapons but none of the country’s advanced battle tanks, said Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. The forces also have only one air squadron of SU-27 fighters deployed at the air base near Belbek.
A senior NATO official said that Ukraine’s small naval fleet, which was originally part of the Black Sea Fleet, had been boxed in by Russian warships.
The Russian takeover of Crimea was relatively easy, in part because the Ukrainian military was careful not to respond to a provocation that would excuse any larger intervention. The military — which has seen its top leader change constantly with the political situation — has also made a point of staying out of the internal political conflict in Ukraine.
The current military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Mykhailo Kutsyn, was named to the job only Friday, after Adm. Yuriy Ilyin, 51, was relieved of his post after traveling to Crimea and, reportedly at least, having a heart attack. Ilyin had only been in the post for a short time himself, appointed by Yanukovych on Feb. 19 after Col. Gen. Volodymyr Zamana was fired for being unwilling to attack protesters in Kiev.
Even so, Ukraine had no realistic contingency plan for a Russian takeover of Crimea, given the size of Russian forces legitimately based there, Sutyagin said. But he also said that he doubted that Russian forces would intervene elsewhere in Ukraine, because Russian forces would be too stretched to control much territory.