How Ukraine’s arsenal matches up against the Russian-backed separatists’
On Nov. 18, several rockets fired from a separatist Grad launcher slammed into an apartment building in the eastern Ukrainian town of Toshkovka. It was another shelling in what’s become an almost daily event — as both sides in Ukraine’s civil war turn to heavier weaponry to shift the battle in their favor.
But no soldiers were harmed in this shelling. Instead, three civilians died and four others — including two children — were wounded. It was more than four miles behind the front line, which formed after pro-Russian militants threw Ukrainian troops back during a heavy August counteroffensive.
The separatists now control a 200-mile stretch of territory from the Black Sea to the Russian border. This includes the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, two of the three largest cities in eastern Ukraine. Still, it’s a precarious situation for the militants seeking to create a state-within-a-state.
Ukrainian troops hold an important crossroads at the center of militant territory. They also control the Donetsk airport, an essential facility if the separatist enclave is to survive outside of Kiev’s control. Several cease-fire agreements have yet to stop the fighting.
The war looks a lot different than it did a few months ago, however. It’s settling along a single front line, with fewer of the advances and retreats that marked this summer’s fighting.
For the Ukrainians, more and better weapons haven’t been decisive. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kiev inherited a military that was far too large and complex for a poor country without any clear threats. By the time Ukraine’s leaders began reforming the military structure, the 2008 economic collapse had arrived. The global crisis nearly bankrupt the army, according to a new collection of essays titled Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine.
Now the question is whether the outnumbered but heavily armed separatists have enough weapons to push the Ukrainian army farther back — without support from a full-blown Russian invasion. If the answer is no, the result could be stalemate.
But Ukrainian politicians should also be worried about the Russian-backed separatists obtaining even heavier weapons — particularly tanks and artillery — that could help them mount another offensive.
The Ukraine army is far larger and more capable than the separatist brigades. Kiev has more than 41,000 combat troops, with several thousand more enlisted in volunteer militias. The total number of pro-Russian fighters is unclear, but estimates range between 10,000 and 20,000 militants.
But the Ukrainian army has serious structural weaknesses that explain why it hasn’t succeeded in quashing the separatists.
During most of the post-Soviet era, the Ukrainian army has been more of a scrapyard than an actual army. Thousands of tanks and armored vehicles, as well as hundreds of planes, sat rusting. The military was partly financed through a government special fund, which took in revenues by selling weapons and military-owned facilities. “The Ukrainian Armed Forces,” military analyst Vyacheslav Tseluyko wrote in Brothers Armed, “were in a state of suspended animation, lacking any obvious reason for being.”
By 2000, underpaid and poorly trained conscripts made up 90 percent of the army’s total strength. Few of its aircraft were capable of flying. Most of the military was based in western Ukraine near the borders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — an alliance Kiev wanted to join, not fight.
This was all supposed to change in 2008. A pro-NATO government in Kiev embarked in 2007 on an ambitious military modernization program, devised in part as a response to the war between Russia and Georgia. Kiev’s defense budget was to increase by one-third, with the special fund covering a larger share of the total.
If this plan had been carried out, the military would have become more professional, purchased modern equipment and moved its bases to the east — as a deterrent against a Russian invasion — instead of looking west to confront NATO.
But it was the worst possible timing. The 2008 global financial crisis swept through Ukraine, derailing all the plans. The army had to struggle just to pay its utility bills. Instead of increasing by one-third, the defense budget shrank by that much. Soldiers resorted to eating field rations because money ran out to pay the contractors who worked in army kitchens. Training exercises fell to the minimum.
The army had partially recovered from this blow before the fighting with the separatists began. There was no longer a draft. But the military was still far too large, with many personnel in redundant support roles. Its soldiers, sailors and pilots had also seen their skills degrade during the recession.
USE OF WEAPONS
Early in the conflict, most weapons carried by the pro-Russian rebels were captured hardware or arms bought on the civilian market, according to a recent report by ARES, a consultant firm that tracks weapons used in armed conflicts.
Both sides are now largely using the same Soviet-era small arms. These include vintage Kalashnikov-variant rifles and light RPK machine guns. A few separatist fighters even carry bolt-action Mosin-Nagant rifles dating to World War Two. They manufacture their own submachine guns.
With so many older weapons, there’s a high degree of customization. Civilian components — bought in gun stores or over the Internet — are popular with soldiers on both sides. Add-ons include custom scopes, silencers and cosmetic features and “reflect a global fashion trend driven by the firearms industry in the West,” ARES noted.
Many parts are sought after despite the soldiers’ unfamiliarity with them. One Ukrainian soldier was carrying a rifle with an expensive Swedish-made scope mounted backward on the top — making the weapon practically useless. But, as the ARES report explained, it looked the part. Another Ukrainian soldier fighting in the east had a $589 Zombie Stopper scope – “guaranteed to help you kill zombies deader,” according to its manufacturer’s claims. Contrast this slew of rusty, older and customized guns in eastern Ukraine with the military gear of regular Russian troops.
When Russian soldiers helicoptered into Crimea in February, they wore new camouflage uniforms and carried modern black polymer AK-74M rifles. These guns are virtually exclusive to Russia. (Azerbaijan and Cyprus use them as well.) These green-clad gunmen were immediately marked as Russian troops.
Looking for evidence of Russian-supplied guns in eastern Ukraine isn’t as easy as it was in Crimea. As the Ukrainian army advanced toward separatist-controlled cities, however, the rebels began fielding sophisticated weapons used only by the Russian armed forces and a few other select countries. But not Ukraine.
These weapons include VSS sniper rifles and PKP machine guns, which the Ukrainian army does not have. The separatists also carried ASVK recoilless rifles, designed to fire heavy slugs at tanks and buildings. The Russian army began using these in 2012. It is the only army known to use this weapon, with the apparent exception being the separatists.
The rebels also have dozens of tanks. It’s unknown exactly how many. But the bulk appear to be captured T-64s, with several dozen T-72B3 tanks that Russia produced but never exported — until now. These tanks date to 2013 and have modern thermal sights and fire-control computers. The Ukrainians do have several hundred older T-72s in storage, but they are not likely serviceable.
Ukraine, however, has been the heavier tank user in the conflict, according to ARES. The problem is that the Ukrainian advantage in armor — mostly T-64 tanks — is negligible considering the amount of light antitank weapons the militants possess.
In addition to captured antitank missiles, the separatists now have modern 9K135 Kornet missiles. These Russian-made missiles are among the world’s deadliest antitank weapons. They are a recurring sight in Middle East conflicts. Ukraine, however, does not possess them.
The separatists also have large numbers of shoulder-fired antitank rockets. They are more advanced than the Soviet-made rockets usually seen in the Middle East. The separatists’ arsenal includes the RPG-18 – another weapon that Ukrainian forces do not possess. They also have RPO-A and MRO-A thermobaric launchers, similarly absent from Ukrainian stockpiles. These propel a fuel-air explosive warhead designed to destroy buildings, bunkers and lightly armored vehicles.
PHOTO (top): Ukrainian troops at the scene of a separatist mortar attack near Sloviansk, Ukraine on May 11, 2014. Ukraine Ministry of Defense photo
PHOTO (inset 1): Ukrainian artillery fires on separatist positions in 2014. Alexander Klimenko/Ukraine Ministry of Defense photo
PHOTO (inset 2): Separatist billboard in Donetsk on Aug. 22, 2014. Andrew Butko/Wikimedia
PHOTO (inset 3): Amphibious separatist armored vehicle near Schastia, Ukraine on June 9, 2014. This vehicle was captured by Ukrainian forces. Qypchak/Wikimedia photo
PHOTO (inset 4): Ukrainian Mi-24 Hind gunship takes off during the war in Donbass at an unknown date in 2014. Alexander Klimenko/Ukraine Ministry of Defense photo
PHOTO (inset 5): Ukrainian Donbas battalion troops near Donetsk on Aug. 9, 2014. The soldier in center is carrying a Dragunov sniper rifle. Lionkinh/Wikimedia photo
PHOTO (inset 6): Donbas battalion troops dismount from a BTR armored vehicle on Aug. 9, 2014. Lionkinh/Wikimedia photo