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Ukrainian army in morale but lacks weapons

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and supported separatists in the east of the country more than seven years ago, Kiev’s underfunded and disorganized armed forces struggled to organize a credible response.

Now, with fears that a build-up of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border may signal a possible attack, military experts say Moscow will face stronger resistance this time around. But they point out that Ukraine would be far short of what it needs to counter Russia’s overwhelming land, sea and air superiority.

Yet years of fighting separatists have given Ukrainian veterans like Colonel Viacheslav Vlasenko the battlefield experience for such a fight.

“In the event of Russian aggression. I will have no choice – every Ukrainian is ready to die with guns in hand, ”said highly decorated Vlasenko, 53. “Ukraine will never be part of Russia. If we are to prove to the Kremlin that Ukraine has the right to freedom and independence, we are ready for it.

While Western military assistance has remained limited, Ukraine has always received advanced foreign weapons, including sophisticated American anti-tank missiles and Turkish drones to deliver a heavier punch than in the past.

Vlasenko, who spent four and a half years fighting rebels in the east in a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people, said the country now has thousands of highly motivated and seasoned soldiers.

“We Ukrainians are defending our land, and there is no place to retreat,” Vlasenko said, adding that he was taking his 13-year-old son to practice shooting so he would know “who is our enemy and learn to defend and retaliate.

Earlier this week, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy congratulated Ukrainian soldiers on a visit to an area near the conflict zone to mark a military holiday.

“The Ukrainian military continues to perform their most important mission – to protect the freedom and sovereignty of the state against the Russian aggressor,” Zelenskyy said.

US intelligence officials have determined that Russia has moved 70,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and prepared for a possible invasion early next year. Moscow has denied any plans to attack Ukraine, dismissing Western concerns as part of a smear campaign.

On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video conference that Moscow would face “economic consequences like you’ve never seen” if it invades Ukraine, although it has noted that Washington would not deploy military forces there.

Putin reiterated his denial of attacking Ukraine, but stressed that NATO’s possible expansion into Ukraine was a “red line” for Moscow.

If Russia attacks its neighbor, the million-strong Russian army would inevitably overwhelm the Ukrainian armed forces, of which there are around 255,000. But in addition to an economic blow promised by Western sanctions, the Russia would also risk suffering significant military losses that would tarnish Putin’s image in his country.

Ukrainian veterans and military analysts say the country will not surrender combat-free territory this time around, unlike 2014 in Crimea, where Russian troops in unmarked uniforms encountered virtually no resistance to overtake the Black Sea Peninsula.

“Ukraine will not become easy prey for the Russians. There will be a bloodbath, ”Vlasenko said. “Putin will float hundreds and thousands of coffins from Ukraine to Russia.”

A few weeks after the annexation of Crimea, Russia began to support the separatist uprising in Ukraine’s eastern industrial center known as Donbass. Ukraine and the West accused Russia of providing the rebels with troops and weapons – accusations Moscow denied, saying all Russians fighting there were volunteers.

A series of deadly military defeats forced Ukraine to sign a 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany that provided for broad autonomy for breakaway regions and a sweeping amnesty for rebels. The deal which was seen by many in Ukraine as a betrayal of its national interests. While this helped end large-scale fighting, frequent skirmishes continued in a political stalemate as Ukraine and Russia exchanged charges.

Mykola Sunhurovskyi, a leading military analyst for the Kiev-based independent think tank Razumkov Center, said the Ukrainian military has made a lot of progress in recent years, thanks to Western equipment and training.

“The military is much stronger today than it was at the start of 2014, and Russia will face serious resistance,” he said.

Western aid included Javelin anti-tank missiles and US-supplied patrol boats. The United States and other NATO forces have conducted joint exercises with the Ukrainian military in exercises that have upset Russia. Last month, Ukraine signed an agreement with the United Kingdom for the construction of naval bases on the Black Sea and the Sea of ​​Azov.

Yet Sunhurovskyi argued that Western aid is not enough.

“The military aid provided by the West is far from what Ukraine needs,” Sunhurovskyi said, adding that its slowness was also a key problem. “Help is needed within two months, not two or three years. There are huge gaps in Ukrainian military potential that need to be addressed. “

He particularly highlighted the air defenses of Ukraine.

“The air defense system is not ready to repel massive airstrikes from Russia,” Sunhurovskyi said, adding that Ukraine also lacks advanced electronic warfare systems and lacks artillery and missiles.

Morale is not a problem, he says.

“From the point of view of the fighting spirit, Ukraine is ready for war, but there are problems with the technological level of the Ukrainian army, which is below what is necessary to deter Russia from launch an attack, ”he said.

Zelenskyy said the Ukrainian army “has come a difficult way in creating a highly competent and highly organized combat structure, confident in its potential and capable of derailing any aggressive plan of the enemy.” On Thursday, he spoke to Biden, who briefed him on the discussion with Putin.

Analysts also said Russia should prepare for a national resistance campaign by Ukrainian veterans after any invasion.

“If it launches aggression, Russia will face full-scale guerrilla warfare in Ukraine, and the infrastructure for this has already been put in place,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kiev-based Penta think tank. “Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers served in the east, and there is a local hero in every yard who fought the separatists and the Russians.

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Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.

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