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Ukraine's Weakened Military Could Hinder Poroshenko's Objectives


The new president of Ukraine also faces the problem keeping order. Petro Poroshenko has won praise for his tough stance on the pro-Russian insurgency in the east of the country. But it can take force to back up words. And the Ukrainian military is considered relatively weak. NPR's Peter Kenyon just returned from Ukraine and has this report.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The Ukrainian armed forces have struck some blows against militants in the East, mainly thanks to their airpower. But overall, the news from Sloviansk, Donetsk and Luhansk has been grim. Video footage posted online appears to show a separatist attack on a border guard post in Luhansk Province, which eventually forced the outgunned guards to flee, opening a corridor for the flow of fighters and weapons from Russia. The government in Kiev is well aware that one of Moscow's objectives may be to open a corridor through eastern Ukraine to Crimea, already under Russian control in an annexation not recognized internationally. But Ihor Smeshko, former head of Ukrainian intelligence and longtime military man, says, in addition to the military's aging equipment, the armed forces are handicapped by organizational problems that hinder their ability to execute, what the government calls, its anti-terrorism operation in the East.

IHOR SMESHKO: It's very painful to me to answer, as the professional soldier for 37 years. I don't feel that we have real guidance of anti-terrorist operation and, basically, territorial defense on level of strategic staff.

KENYON: Smeshko says under Ukraine's former president, Viktor Yanukovych, a sort of Balkanization of the armed forces developed, leaving a series of disparate entities with no culture of working together.

SMESHKO: Right now, we have this strange situation. We see that real communications, cooperation, coordination doesn't exist on the level between Security Service, Ministry of Interior Affairs, border guard's troops and, especially, the Army.

KENYON: Serhiy Astakhov, a spokesman for Ukraine's border guards, defends the services efforts to join forces with the military in some parts of Ukraine. But acknowledges that in Sloviansk, Donetsk and Luhansk, where the heaviest fighting is taking place, it's not happening.

SERHIY ASTAKHOV: (Through translator) By the way, we have good coordination with the armed forces on the border near Crimea and also in the Northeast, around Kharkiv. Unfortunately, in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, the armed forces are heavily engaged in their own operations. Eventually, they will regroup closer to the border and seal it.

KENYON: There are also signs of a serious manpower shortage. Dmitry Tymchuk, a pro-government analyst and blogger with good military contacts, writes that the Army announced a large-scale operation to rescue the embattled Luhansk border guards. But nothing happened because troops were already engaged elsewhere. On the international front, so far the aid from Washington has been limited to items such as food rations, tents, and body armor, according to Under Secretary of Defense, Derek Chollet.

DEREK CHOLLET: It's non-lethal assistance. It's roughly doubling the assistance that we had provided Ukriane up to this point. And we are interested in providing further assistance. The Ukranians have asked us for a very long list. And we, the United States, as well as close partners of ours, Poland, France, the United Kingdom will be working with Ukraine in the coming weeks to help fulfill those requests.

KENYON: The U.S. and Britain are also offering to bolster the military capacity of their NATO allies in Eastern Europe. And Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel says the American presence in the Black Sea will be beefed up. NATO is also considering an aid package to reform and modernize Ukraine's armed forces. In the meantime, however, the government in Kiev is reportedly contemplating a Declaration of Martial Law, as its military struggles to keep the pro-Russian revolt from widening. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

INSKEEP: Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.