Amid Russia tensions, Ukraine plans to improve military

Ukraine’s struggle to contain Russia and protect its national sovereignty has prompted the nation to upgrade its navy and make much needed political reforms.

A new integrated defense strategy for Ukraine was released in February and focuses on the nation’s defense against a possible Russian attack as well as on an overhaul of the country’s military and military industries.

The document identifies Russia’s Northern Fleet, which covers the Kherson, Odessa and Mariupol regions, as one of its greatest defense threats, along with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Caspian Sea Fleet and Moldova’s Moldavian Fleet.

The military will also help Ukraine ward off threats from neighboring China as well as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A combined naval fleet that “can project power on and off the Ukraine’s borders is critical,” the strategy said.

“The new strategy confirms Ukraine’s determination to strengthen its national security, its role on the international stage and the system of national defense in order to transform it into a credible and modern state.”

No details were given as to how Ukraine plans to counter Russia’s military expansion. But the Moscow-backed separatist conflict in the eastern part of the country has already cost about 10,000 lives and a collapse in Ukraine’s military might would exacerbate tensions between the former Soviet neighbors.

Ukraine’s navy still suffers from years of neglect and corruption. An independent Ukrainian navy was the legacy of the Soviet Union. It had as few as 700 vessels in 1992, but Ukraine currently has only 50.

Money is a major obstacle. Ukraine’s military budget is less than 10 percent of the amount that the White House wants from the Congress this year, a State Department official said.

Significant parts of Ukraine’s military personnel are recruits who dropped out of the armed forces, overwhelmed by repeated attempts to flee the country in 2015. Ukraine now hopes to boost the number of its veterans, to include first-time recruits.

The government is also launching one of the biggest military overhauls ever. The new Defense Ministry aims to shift to a mix of imported weapons and training Ukrainian army staff. An anti-terrorism unit is to be built in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and to complement the U.S.-trained military.

While critics complain that Ukraine’s military reform remains incomplete, Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak said he’s confident that Ukraine can enter the first phase of such a reform and finish the task in three years.

Ukraine now has 2,300 tanks, more than 2,400 armored vehicles and more than 100 squadrons of fighting aircraft and helicopters.

Ukraine’s military capabilities are much better than it had during World War II. But it is only a bit more powerful than what was left by the Soviet Union after the Soviets withdrew in 1991, just months before Ukraine broke away from Moscow.

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