Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

Russia's Move Into Ukraine Turns Allies Into Adversaries


As we've heard elsewhere in the program, Ukraine's military is threatening to move on cities and towns in the country's east, where pro-Russian demonstrators have taken over government buildings. Meanwhile, Russian forces are massed along the border with Ukraine.


Moscow's quick takeover of Crimea last month highlighted the pretty glaring inequalities between the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, yet both countries were the major contributors to the mighty Soviet army.

GREENE: After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow and Kiev kept cooperating, but the recent crisis has turned the former allies into adversaries and may have put an end to their military collaboration for good. Two of our correspondents covering Ukraine and Russia sent this report on what that might mean for the future of both countries' armed forces.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: I'm Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Moscow. The Russian military has improved dramatically since its last brief war five years ago in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Gone were the poorly trained conscripts lacking discipline and supplies. They were replaced by professional Russian troops who quickly and with little bloodshed took control of Ukrainian bases and Navy ships.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, but I've just returned from Ukraine. As those Ukrainian ships and bases in Crimea fell one by one, it became glaringly obvious how much the Ukrainian military has declined.


NELSON: This online video of a joint Russian and Ukraine naval parade in Crimea illustrates how close the two militaries remained after the fall of the Soviet Union, and it used to be that both countries turned a blind eye when one did something to annoy the other, like in 2008 when Ukraine sold weapons to Georgia as Russia was fighting the Georgians over the separatist enclave of South Ossetia.

But now, with relations severed between Moscow and Kiev, Russia faces a new problem of how to equip its modern force when much of its military hardware comes from Ukraine.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: In a recent televised ceremony at the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin and his defense chief made it clear the Russians want nothing more to do with the Ukrainian military. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu asks Putin whether he can start handing back Ukrainian military equipment to the Kiev government, to which the Russian leader replies, yes, carry it out.

At Putin's request, Russian lawmakers also cancelled their country's military agreements with Ukraine. Those contracts spelled out who owned what part of the Black Sea fleet as well as the amounts the Kremlin paid Ukraine for harboring Russian Navy vessels in Crimean ports. But Russian experts say severing military ties between the two countries is much easier said than done, given the heavy dependence each has on the other for military weapons and hardware.

ALEXANDER GOLTS: It will cause a lot of problems, especially for our ambitious rearmament program.

NELSON: That's Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst here in Moscow. He says a third of Russia's aging nuclear arsenal was produced in Ukraine and relies on that country for parts. Golts adds that Russia also relies on Ukraine for key components for its helicopters and ships, but Ukraine, one of the world's top weapons dealers, is even more dependent on Russia, with more than two-thirds of its military enterprises using Russian spare parts, Golts says.

GOLTS: Russia can survive in this situation. It will be much more painful for Ukraine than for Russia.

BEARDSLEY: That's evident in Ukraine, which after the Crimea takeover has been left with just a single warship and military units that analysts say haven't been modernized in over two decades. Ukraine is working furiously to boost its military readiness. The Ukrainian parliament approved around $500 million in funding and voted to mobilize 40,000 men immediately, 20,000 for the armed forces and 20,000 for a newly created national guard.

Foreign journalists were taken to a training base on the outskirts of Kiev to see the new national guard conscripts train. There was plenty of enthusiasm, but equipment was sorely lacking and what they had was clearly outdated. In Kiev, politicians say the Ukrainian armed forces have been gutted by a string of pro-Russia leaders. Boris Tarasuk is a member of parliament and a former foreign minister.

BORIS TARASUK: The previous authorities were doing their best in order to diminish any military capabilities of Ukrainian armed forces through their agents who directly or indirectly were leading the ministry of defense, the ministry of interior, security service as well as other structures.

BEARDSLEY: Tarasuk points to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's extension of the right for Russian's Black Sea fleet to stay in Crimean ports for 25 years beyond the original 2017 deadline. He calls that move treason, though with Crimea now out of Ukraine's control, the point seems moot. Tarasuk led the Ukrainian delegation during the negotiations in the early '90s that gave Russia access to Crimean ports.

He says Moscow never paid a cent for the rights. He now believes Ukraine's first post-Soviet president, Leonid Kravchuk, made a huge miscalculation.

TARASUK: From the very beginning, it was serious strategic mistake made by then-President Kravchuk, who agreed on a division of this Black Sea fleet as though begin strategic, but it wasn't strategic.

BEARDSLEY: Tarasuk says Russia's plan to take Crimea from Ukraine dates back at least to 2004 and the country's Orange Revolution. If we had never agreed to Russia's presence in Crimea, he says, we wouldn't be in the situation we're in today.

NELSON: That view is not own shared by Russian officials or analysts. Then again, there's little acknowledgement of any Ukrainian contribution to Russia's military, past or present, like here at the Central Museum of the Armed Forces in the Russian capital. This tour guide talks to dozens of Russian sailors, who hear all about Soviet and Russian war efforts, but nothing about the Ukrainian role.

That's not surprising, says military analyst Golts.

GOLTS: It was Soviet army and Soviet huge military industrial complex and one-third of all enterprises of this military industrial complex was based on Ukrainian territory. That is the most important factor.

BEARDSLEY: In Kiev the government is asking for military help from the West and NATO. Many Ukrainians believe Britain and the United States bear a special responsibility to help their country because those two nations, along with Russia, promised to uphold Ukraine's sovereignty when the country gave up its nuclear arsenal in 1994.

NELSON: For Russia the problem is finding new suppliers to keep its well-tuned military humming.

MIKHAIL KHODARYONOK: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: And it will take years for Russia to begin manufacturing the items at home, says Mikhail Khodaryonok. He's the editor of Military Industrial Courier, which is a weekly Russian newspaper focused on the country's armed forces.

KHODARYONOK: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: He adds in this way Ukraine is keeping its fingers on our throats. I'm Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Moscow.

BEARDSLEY: And I'm NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.