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Ukrainian seamen stand guard on the Ukrainian navy ship Slavutich in Sevastopol harbour, March 3, 2014. (Andrew Lubimov/AP)
Ukrainian seamen stand guard on the Ukrainian navy ship Slavutich in Sevastopol harbour, March 3, 2014. (Andrew Lubimov/AP)

Paul Koring

Kiev plays David to the Russian Goliath Add to ...

Ukraine’s ill-equipped, rundown and underfunded army has little combat punch, and is certainly no match for Russia’s still-massive military.

Scattered in bases across Ukraine, the army is composed mostly of conscripts and ill-paid contract soldiers. A handful of better but hardly elite units have deployed on international missions with mixed success over the past two years, but even they are often equipped with Soviet-era vehicles and weapons.

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Even compared to Canada’s modest military, Ukraine’s is weak. Kiev spends less than $5-billion annually on defence; Ottawa spends more than four times as much. By comparison, Russian spent roughly $90-billion (U.S.) in 2013, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and ranked third on the list of big military spenders. The U.S. was first, outspending Russia more than seven-fold.

“The army is in a pitiful state,” Valentin Badrak, director of the Research Centre for the Army, Demilitarization and Disarmament in Kiev, told Agence France-Presse. Morale is low, loyalties are divided and much of the senior officer corps dates from the Soviet era. “An officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel earns as much as a cashier at a supermarket,” Mr. Badrak added.

The army seems formidable but only on paper. It still claims more than 4,000 tanks on inventory. Most are decades old and few could deploy. It’s unclear whether the munitions, maintenance, fuel or logistics could sustain even a modest military operation. Although more than one million reservists can theoretically be mobilized, there are barely 90,000 active military members and many of those are in garrison units or in internal security forces.

Conscription ended last year and the military’s future as a professional force is murky.

In the Crimea, Ukraine has an air base, Belbek, outside Sevastopol, a military garrison on the west coast at Yevpatoria and an army base at Kirovsk, near Feodosiya. All three are surrounded by Russian forces. There is also a border guard contingent at the ferry port of Kerch across the straits from Russia’s Black Sea coast, although the contingent there has already reportedly surrendered to Russian troops.

The nearest sizable Ukrainian army contingent may be a 5,000-soldier group (roughly the size of a U.S. brigade) located at Zaporizhzhia, several hundred kilometres north of Crimea. Whether it could actually mobilize and move south seems uncertain.

When they deploy, Ukraine’s forces get mixed reviews.

In Sarajevo, in the mid-1990s, a battalion of Ukrainian troops took over from Canadians in a United Nations peacekeeping role. The supposedly elite battalion was rife with corruption, selling contraband and food to the besieged civilians they were supposed to protect. Kiev has continued to send some contingents abroad. In the past 10 years, a small Ukrainian medical unit was assigned to NATO in Afghanistan, and military observers were sent to UN missions in Africa and to the EU-led mission in Kosovo.

As a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, Ukrainian troops – mostly better-trained and equipped units of career soldiers – have exercised with European nations in recent years.

“It is absolutely not a combat ready force,” Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told Fox News. “It’s sharply underfunded, and they don’t have any real air or surface to air or capacity compared to what Russia can deploy.”

If anything, Ukraine’s navy and air force are in worse shape than the army.

Ukraine’s navy didn’t exist before 1992 and may not exist again if it loses access to the main naval base in Crimea. Moscow donated one 40-year-old Foxtrot-class submarine and an even older destroyer of 1950s-design to Ukraine when the navy was formed. It’s not clear either is capable of deploying. Nine other smaller warships along with a tanker and a couple of tugs round out the navy. Most of the seaworthy naval vessels are based at Sevastopol, the Crimea naval base leased by the Russians where the far larger and far more potent Russian navy maintains its Black Sea fleet. Ukraine also has a pair of small naval vessels based in Odessa.

Ukraine sent its newest warship – and reportedly the only one capable of long-distance trips – to join the international anti-piracy patrol off Africa earlier this year. The frigate Hetman Sahaydachni was in Greece for refuelling when the current crisis erupted and there are conflicting reports as to whether her crew has defected and raised the Russian flag.

On paper, Ukraine’s air force is more potent. However, only 16 of its 42 front-line Sukhoi Su-27 fighters are believed flyable. There are several other squadrons of older MiG warplanes but international defence assessments indicate many aren’t operational. The modern, Russian-built SU-27s are based at Mirgorod Air Base, in the centre of the country. An elite cadre of pilots flies a demonstration squadron called the Falcons based in Crimea. One of it former commanders was imprisoned for 14 years after crashing a Su-27 during an air show in 2002. Ukraine also has about 20 Cold War era intercontinental bombers based at Pryluky, east of Kiev.

Ukraine remains a major arms exporter – the world’s fourth largest after the U.S., Russia and China – with sales of $1.3-billion in 2012, according to SIPRI. The state-owned Ukrspecexport was the biggest supplier mostly selling small arms to the Middle East, Africa and India. Russia remains a major buyer. Ukrainian-made AK-47s are considered among the best of dozens of licensed and unlicensed versions of the ubiquitous Kalashnikov. Ukraine has also developed a new main battle tank, the T-84, and the former Soviet aircraft maker Antonov, which builds large cargo and military transports.

Follow on Twitter: @PaulKoring

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