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Does Russia Have The Military To Take Ukraine?

Armed pro-Russia activists stand outside the Ukrainian regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slovyansk on April 14.
Evgeniy Maloletka
Armed pro-Russia activists stand outside the Ukrainian regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slovyansk on April 14.

Russia says it is once again staging military drills near the border of eastern Ukraine.

Russia's defense minister says the exercises are a reaction to NATO maneuvers in Eastern Europe and what he calls "Ukraine's military machine."

The Russian military carried out similar maneuvers while well-armed, well-trained Russian troops seized key objectives in Crimea. One question now is whether Russia's military is ready to take on a much larger challenge by invading eastern Ukraine.

After Russia completed its annexation of Crimea, this video appeared on YouTube titled: "On the accomplishment of the objective of detachment 0990 from February 22 until March 22 on the territory of Crimea."

For a little more than 7 minutes, it shows a Russian military unit taking key objectives: the Crimean parliament, administration and security buildings, and bases. At first the music seems incongruous, but you quickly realize that it reflects the precision and discipline with which these troops are carrying out their mission. You see masked gunmen entering buildings, securing them, emptying armories and collecting weapons.

Colby Howard, a former U.S. Marine who has been serving as a research fellow at the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) in Moscow, says he was impressed at the smoothness of the operation from what he saw in the video.

"The tactical coordination within the team, on the ground seemed well-coordinated, to the extent that it wasn't their first time," he says.

Howard says the team members, good as they look, still have a ways to go to match the best special operations forces from the U.S. and other countries, but they were more than adequate for the operation in Crimea.

That success looks even better when you compare it with what Russia's army looked like the last time it was in action, during the war with Georgia in 2008.

Its victory was marred by embarrassing technical and mechanical failures, poor coordination and indiscipline on the part of badly trained troops. Ruslan Pukhov, the director of CAST, says Russia's military had to modernize and understand it no longer had enough military-age people to field a giant army.

"We don't have enough people; that's why we [are] supposed to fight in another way," he says. "Now we understand, we [are] also supposed to care about the soldier, because there are not enough of them."

Pukhov says that means hiring and training professional soldiers rather than relying on draftees, and providing those soldiers with better pay and living conditions.

Still, he says, modernization has a long way to go.

"Obviously, such a big machine could not be reformed in such a short period of time, but some important things were done," he says.

Russia put a big share of its oil wealth into defense spending, but at least one analyst says the country still doesn't have enough well-trained professional soldiers to carry out an invasion of Ukraine.

Russian conscripts serve only one year, meaning they spend much of their time in training, and are only combat-ready for about half of their stint in the military.

"That's why it's so important that we either move now, and order the conscripts to stay in units because of a war situation, or we don't move at all," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense analyst and columnist for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Felgenhauer says half of the draftees are ready to be discharged, so unless Russia acts by the middle of May, the army won't be fully combat-ready again until sometime in August.

And that, he says, could give Ukraine the time it needs to bring its own outdated and demoralized military up to fighting strength, which would make it a much more dangerous opponent for Russia.

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