Is It Too Late For Ukraine To Take Back Crimea?

With Russian troops having seized key assets in the Black Sea peninsula, experts say Ukraine's military is ill-prepared to take on Moscow's troops in a fight to reclaim the territory.

Russian forces appear to be digging in after seizing key assets in the Ukrainian republic of Crimea, and despite tough talk from Kiev's new leaders, the former Soviet satellite's under-manned and under-equipped military is no match for Moscow's battle-tested troops, experts say.

What's more is that most people in the mainly Russian-speaking peninsula, an autonomous region that is home to the Kremlin's Black Sea Fleet, are just fine with the situation. In face, their new prime minister invited Moscow's intervention, ostensibly to "guarantee peace" amid the political chaos in Kiev.

NPR's Peter Kenyon, reporting from the Crimean city of Simferopol, says pro-Russian Crimeans make up a majority in the region and most "seem untroubled by the effective military occupation of their territory."

"For many, it's reassuring to hear that Russian forces now control most strategic assets in Crimea," Kenyon reports on Weekend Edition Sunday.

After months of anti-government protests, Ukraine's pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted last week and replaced by a more Western-leaning interim government. The move was immediately condemned by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who described it as a "coup." Thursday's military intervention reflects a fear that Ukraine, long closely tied to Moscow, will "somehow spin out of the orbit of Russia," Steven Lee Myers, Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times, tells WESUN host Jacki Lyden.

On Sunday, Ukrainian leaders made allusions to a state of war with Russia, with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk calling on Putin to pull back his troops and warning that the two sides were "on the brink of disaster."

But Olga Oliker, associate director of Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center, speaking with CNBC on Friday, said that "if Crimea decides it wants to be part of Russia, all Ukraine can hope to do is get the EU and U.S. to intervene on its behalf." She says that kind of military help is highly unlikely.

Myers tells NPR that Ukrainian forces would be at a distinct disadvantage in such a conflict.

"They haven't been tested like Russian forces have been in various conflicts from Chechnya to Georgia in 2008," he says.

"The Russian military is obviously much larger, better equipped, had some moves toward modernization, especially under Putin, with new armaments and so forth," Myers says. "So, I think it would not necessarily be an even fight. That said, [Ukraine's is] not a small army and they do have capabilities. The question is would they be able to hold together and put up some sort of resistance, if it comes to that."

Already, however, there are signs that Ukraine views the occupation of Crimea as a fait accompli. On Sunday, for example, Reuters reports that it withdrew its coast guard vessels from ports in the peninsula:

Reuters says:

In a statement, the border guards said vessels from the Crimean ports of Kerch and Sevastopol had been moved to Odessa and Mariupol. The situation on Ukraine's frontiers was stable apart from in Crimea, the statement said.

Of course, the big question is whether Russian forces will move beyond Crimea, the Times' Myers says.

"Curiously, [Sunday], you see a sort of pause," he tells NPR. "The Kremlin says that Putin hasn't yet made a decision about whether to use or deploy force [in the rest of Ukraine] and we're waiting to see what happens next."

For Galena Moisyeva, strolling the streets of a largely quiet downtown Simferopol, if Russian control of Crimea is "what comes next," is parting ways with the rest of Ukraine, she's OK with that:

"You talk about troops, but you can see we just came from the theater, we don't see any troops," she told NPR's Kenyon. "In Kiev the authorities are illegal, we don't like this. We ask for Crimea to be separated from Ukraine, but we don't ask to join Russia.

"Putin gives us guarantees that what happened there in Kiev won't happen here."

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