Although Ukrainian forces are mobilized, without assistance they will not likely fare well against the Russians. To give you some idea of the Ukrainian capabilities, I want to discuss their elite units, which are the most combat ready. First, though, I have to point out that “combat ready” is a relative term. Although Ukrainian elite units are relatively well trained, they would be facing Russian spetsnaz units, many of which have seen combat in Chechnya. Another major problem for Ukrainian elite and conventional units is that in many ways they have stood still since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Even the most combat-ready Ukrainian units are still armed with Soviet-era weapons.
Since one of the Ukrainian elite units poised for the most rapid response to a situation in the Crimea is the 79th Airmobile Brigade in Mykolaiv on the Black Sea, I will begin by discussing the Ukrainian airmobile forces. When the Soviet Union broke up and Ukraine became independent, it inherited one division and three brigades from the former Soviet airborne forces. Since that time, cuts in troops strength and funding have lowered the combat readiness of the Ukrainian airmobile forces, though their state of readiness is still greater than much of the rest of the armed forces. And, at least some airmobile troops have some combat experience, having served in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq.
As of 2008, the Ukrainian Airmobile Forces consisted of the 25th Airborne Brigade, the 95th Airmobile Brigade, the 79th Airmobile Brigade, the 80th Airmobile Regiment and the 28th Training Battalion. Typically, each airmobile brigade is comprised of three battalions, which are comprised of a headquarters company, three airmobile companies, a mortar battery, an anti-tank platoon and an anti-aircraft platoon. Each brigade has support elements as well as an artillery battalion, an anti-tank battalion and a recon company. One of the airmobile battalions, the 13th, is a fully professional unit trained and equipped for peacekeeping operations. The 79th Airmobile Brigade is also a fully professional unit.
“At least some airmobile troops have some combat experience, having served in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq.”
Although many members of the airmobile brigades are parachute qualified, the unit tasked with airborne missions is the 25th Airborne Brigade. Within the brigade are three parachute battalions as well as an artillery group, an anti-aircraft artillery battalion, an airmobile recon company and various support companies. The last time I talked with U.S. personnel who had trained with the 25th Airborne Brigade, a lack of parachutes and lift capability was making it difficult to keep all members parachute qualified.
Marines & Spetsnaz
Also reasonably well positioned to intervene in Ukraine are the Ukranian Naval Infantry (Marine Corps). Primary missions of the Ukrainian Marines include attacks on naval installations, port facilities and coastal areas, as well as reconnaissance along coastal areas. Currently, the Ukrainian Marines consist of one battalion organized into three companies, a mortar battery and a recon platoon. One of the companies is air assault qualified. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, the Ukraine inherited some naval spetsnaz (combat swimmers) from the former Black Sea Fleet. These formed the basis for current Ukraine combat swimmers. One other legacy that gives the Ukrainian naval spetsnaz an interesting capability is the combat dolphin. The primary Soviet training facility for military dolphins was in Ukraine, and, reportedly, the Ukrainians have retained some combat dolphins trained to attack enemy vessels. The status of the Ukrainian Naval Infantry is unclear, however, as their major bases were in areas now occupied by the Russians.
The status of Ukrainian spetsnaz units is unclear right now, as some have close ties with Russian spetsnaz and/or have many ethnic Russians in the unit. The 3rd Special Operations Regiment (spetsnaz) is generally rated the best in the Ukrainian Ground Forces. For example, great stress is put on martial arts in Ukrainian special units, especially Systema, the combat version of Sambo, and the 3rd Special Operations Regiment won the 2013 martial arts championship of the Ukrainian armed forces. Some spetsnaz units refused to support the opposition government when it took power and have refused deployment against the Russians in the Crimea. I am not sure which of the spetsnaz units specifically have refused, but they are likely those based in ethnic Russian areas. It should also be noted that ties between the Ukrainian and Russian spetsnaz units remained strong after Ukrainian independence, as the units often trained together.
More Special Units
There have been various spetsnaz units within the Ukrainian Internal Troops. These included Bars (Snow Leopard), Yahuar (Jaguar) and Hepard (Cheetah). There was also a unit designated Tyhr (Tiger). Bars was based near Kiev and was of brigade strength. Within Bars was an anti-terrorist unit designated “Omega” and containing a large number of trained snipers. Other Internal Troops special units included Kobra, a unit specializing in special operations in the mountains, and Skorpion, an anti-terrorist unit specializing in nuclear security, especially around the Chernobyl site. At one point, the Ukraine had an anti-terrorist unit designated “Alfa,” as with the Russian FSB unit, but I have not seen reference to it for a couple of years. Another elite unit with anti-terrorist duties was Sokol.
“GP-25 and GP-30 under-barrel grenade launchers are used on some of the AKS-74 rifles.”
One of the best known (aka notorious) of the Ukrainian elite police units was Berkut (Golden Eagle). An elite unit that evolved from the Soviet-era OMON, Berkut was originally intended to combat organized crime, but evolved into a riot police unit designed to contain civil unrest. At the time the anti-government demonstrations began in the Ukraine, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 members of Berkut stationed throughout the country. During the demonstrations against the Yanukovych government, Berkut units from pro-Russian areas were brought to Kiev and dealt with demonstrators harshly. After opposition forces took control of the Ukrainian government, Berkut was disbanded; however, many members of Berkut have been active in support of the Russians in the Crimea.
Guns & Gear
As mentioned earlier, most of the weapons and equipment of Ukrainian elite units are still left over from the Soviet Union. Not only that, but the Ukrainians have continued to purchase replacement weapons from Russia. The principal rifle for the elite units is the folding-stocked AKS-74, with some units using the short-barreled AKSU version. AKMS 7.62x39mm rifles are also still in use. GP-25 and GP-30 under-barrel grenade launchers are used on some of the AKS-74 rifles.
Other weapons still in use include the RPKS-74 light machine gun. The RPK and PKM are also used. For area fire, airmobile troops have the AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher. For sniping, the SVD Dragunov is still in service, though, reportedly, Ukrainian special operations personnel have at least a few of the Ukrainian-produced Z-008 precision sniping rifle.
Although the PKM Makarov pistol remains the standard-issue weapon, the Fort-12, a Ukrainian design in 9x18mm Makarov caliber, is used by some special units. A Ukrainian-designed bullpup version of the AK-74, the VEPR, is also in limited service with some special forces units of the military and police. Also retained from the days of the Soviet Union are the two underwater weapons used by Ukrainian combat swimmers—the SPP-1 underwater pistol and the APS underwater rifle. The SPP-1 is a four-barreled, double-action design. The APS can be fired on full-auto, launching bolts designed to be more aerodynamic underwater. It can also be fired out of the water, but the range is reduced and the service life of the weapon is cut dramatically.
Based on the most current information available, the 25th Airborne Brigade is still using the traditional Russian BMD-1 and BMD-2 airborne combat vehicles. Other airmobile units have the BTR-80 amphibious armored personnel carrier. I believe the Naval Infantry also use the BTR-80 as well, though they may also have a few PT-76 light tanks. Artillery used by the airmobile forces includes the 2S9 Nona-S self-propelled 120mm mortar and the ZU23-2 double-barreled 23mm anti-aircraft gun.
The Ukrainian elite units have especially good relations with Polish Commandos and Formoza combat swimmers, the U.S. Army Airborne, Ranger and Special Forces, as well as the USMC, and the British Royal Marine Commandos, Parachute Regiment and SAS. These and other NATO units frequently have trained with the Ukrainian elite units. If Russia continues to seize Ukrainian territory outside of the Crimea, tensions between NATO and the Russians will continue to grow. As it stands, Exercise Rapid Trident 2014, involving NATO and U.S. troops, including airborne and other elements, is scheduled to take place in the Ukraine in July of 2014. Certainly, the presence of U.S. and other NATO combat troops training with the Ukrainian forces would attract the attention of the Russians.