KIEV May 9 The Ukrainian soldiers manning a
checkpoint in the restive east gladly accepted the gifts of food
and drink, a kind thought it seemed by local well-wishers.
Twenty minutes later they had all fallen into a deep sleep,
helpless to resist pro-Russian rebels who bundled them and their
guns into three cars and spirited them away.
Deputy defence minister Ihor Kabanenko deplored the rebels'
"dirty tactics"; but, peculiarly humiliating and unusual as it
may have been, the incident gave some flavour of problems facing
ill-prepared and poorly led security forces.
Weeks of fighting have exposed 20 years of neglect of
Ukraine's security forces since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet
Union. Eastern rebels that Kiev and the West say are backed by
Russian special forces benefit from political vacillation,
disarray among the generals and field commanders unsure of their
While an outright invasion by Russia, which would trigger a
tense NATO-Russia standoff across Europe, seems less likely for
now, President Vladimir Putin leaves open the option.
"What we see now is improvisation," Dmytro Tymchuk, a former
soldier and head of Kiev's Centre of Military and Political
Research, told a briefing. He pointed to a failure of the many
different forces, from army and paramilitary police, to special
forces and air units, to communicate and cooperate efficiently.
A security source said at least two members of the SBU
security service's elite Alpha unit were killed when they
blundered into an ambush following a breakdown of communication.
Tymchuk cited an airfield near Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk
heartland of the anti-Kiev insurrection, that came under fire,
its defenders armed with only light weapons. Dispatch of air and
armoured support foundered on indecision.
"The staff of the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) should
decide these questions on the spot and react quickly...Instead
they turn to Kiev and men with big stars on their lapels tell
Ukraine's political leaders face a dilemma as they try to
restore calm ahead of presidential elections on May 25 that they
hope will bring stability.
While under pressure to act firmly and stop rebellion
spreading, they must also avoid civilian casualties and actions
that could play into Moscow's contention the "ATO" is nothing
other than an onslaught by Ukrainian nationalist extremists.
NEW NATIONAL GUARD
Insurrection began in eastern, Russian-speaking areas of
Ukraine after protests in Kiev forced pro-Kremlin president
Viktor Yanukovich to flee to Russia. Since then rebels have
seized cities across the region, mostly with little resistance.
The Interior Ministry and police forces have also been found
wanting, some accused of direct collaboration with pro-Russian
activists. Police chiefs throughout the country have been
replaced, in the east their jobs taken by rebels.
The entire police leadership in Odessa was sacked after
eastern insurgency spread for a day to the southwestern port
city, raising fears of a lurch to civil war. Over 40 died in
clashes, most rebel activists trapped in a blazing building.
Oleksander, 23, stands in a field near Kiev dressed in
camouflage uniform, forage cap and reflective glasses, his face
masked. He is a recruit to the newly formed National Guard that
he sees as the vanguard of a revived Ukrainian fighting spirit.
"Discipline, will and motivation are the three components of
our success," he says as shells explode over a sandy ridge
across the field.
There seemed no lack of enthusiasm among recruits firing
rifles and rocket-propelled grenades on the practice range
surrounded by silver birch forest. Initial training for Sasha's
second Kiev battalion of 270 men is three weeks.
"But considering the way things are going in Ukraine, it
may be even shorter," he adds. Oleksander describes his
background as that of a "social activist" and says he comes from
the eastern town of Sumy 40 km (25 miles) from the Russian
The National Guard, founded in March, is based on the old
Interior Ministry paramilitary force of 33,000, and will be
augmented by some 3,000 volunteers. Some come from the
"self-defence forces" involved in demonstrations early this year
that eventually forced pro-Russian president Yanukovich to flee.
Oleksander laments the state of the army, which he says has
been undermined by infiltration by "foreign agents" - a
reference to pro-Russian loyalists - appointed to key positions
especially in the intelligence services and army by Yanukovich.
It is a sentiment widely shared in Kiev.
Moscow denies any subversive role or link to the rebels and
blames Kiev for a crisis that has raised fears in other
ex-Soviet states with Russian minorities.
Oleksander says he is determined to learn quickly. "I paid a
lot of attention to self-education. I can't say I'm a
professional but I also can't say I have no knowledge."
Vitaly, 52, is one of the experienced recruits to the
National Guard, having, he says, served in the Soviet Army, then
worked in the military field in former Yugoslavia, Iraq and
"I couldn't just sit at home watching all this on
television, so I signed up," he says, holding up three fingers
for three years. "I hope my experience can be of use here."
Lack of modern equipment and tactical training is also a
serious problem. Across the border, Russian forces learnt
lessons on both counts from a war with Georgia in 2008.
Mariupol, a major industrial and shipping centre in the
Donetsk region that has declared a breakaway "People's
Republic", seems to have become something of a testing ground,
with Kiev trying a range of tactics to claw back control.
Ukrainian forces have carried out a series of probing raids,
taking over checkpoints and key buildings there, before
withdrawing. Gunmen melt away, then reappear, to be confronted
again by soldiers in what amounts to shadow boxing.
The conflict in the east remains a murky affair;
inexperienced Ukrainian forces sounding out insurgents, who are
sometimes untrained civilians touting a rifle, sometimes
apparently well trained fighters with heavy machine guns.
It could continue well after a vote for autonomy called in
the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions for Sunday.
The five soldiers seized from their Mariupol checkpoint were
freed after negotiations between local police and militants.
Talks between Kiev and the rebels, though, appear far away,
rhetoric becomes more uncompromising and the danger grows that
Ukraine's still struggling security forces will be put to the
test while still in disarray.
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; editing by Janet