Other than the repeated denunciations of the west aggravating the situation by a coterie of Russian government officials (Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu dismissed claims that Russian troops were in Crimea as an “act of provocation” and “utter nonsense”), one would be hard pressed to find any serious commentator still denying that the troops blockading Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea are Russian troops but rather local militia or self-defense forces. Even Andranik Migranyan—who is a Kremlin advisor and runs a tiny Kremlin funded think tank in New York which acts as an academic or policy version of RT—has sought to justify the presence of Russian troops in Crimea under the terms of the agreement regarding Russia’s Black Sea Fleet which allows up to 25,000 Russian troops in the peninsula.
But the decision to occupy Crimea—and it should be noted Crimea has not been officially annexed yet—has vexed most analysts of Russian politics, both in terms of the harm that such a move has done to Russia’s international status and repeated statements about the authority of the Security Council, to the more practical issue of potentially supporting the financially decrepit region whose standards of living are essentially half of the nearby Russian regions of Krasnodar or Stavropol (it could cost as much as $6 billion to support the economy and pensioners). Whatever the rationale, whether to pressure Kiev to listen a little more to Russian concerns or to ensure the status of the Black Sea Fleet from any revisionist policy by the new government, there have been plenty of comparisons of the current situation to the 2008 war with Georgia.
The 2008 war in Georgia did more than demonstrate Russia’s views on Eurasia and the nations that it considers falling under its sphere of influence; it also exposed glaring deficiencies within the Russian military. Along with its nuclear capability and Security Council seat, a powerful Russian military is an essential part of a return by Russia as a globally influential great power. That is why in the aftermath of the 2008 war, Russia initiated a massive modernizatsiia of its military (which among other things, sought to increasingly professionalize the military and replace conscripts with kontraktniki or contract soldiers). It is in this light that we could possibly see another reason for the occupation of Crimea: to demonstrate an improved military capability.
Among the many things that identify the troops in Crimea as Russian, other than them admitting it to TV cameras, has been their professionalism and equipment. It has been remarkable that such tense situations have not devolved into violence or even the shooting by a young soldier with an itchy trigger finger. From the seizure of the Crimean parliament and airport, to the blockading of Ukrainian military facilities the control and professionalism has been remarkable. Additionally, the troops are very well equipped, from the weaponry (including the silenced VSS Vintorez sniper rifle only available to elite units in the Russian military) to Tigr armored vehicles.
When looking at the situation and the troops on the ground, it is fairly safe to assume that the units involved would most assuredly be from the elite Airborne (VDV) and Spetsnaz units (not to mention the 810th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade at Sevastopol). The 7th Guards Air Assault Division is based right next to Crimea in Novorossisk, and there have also been reports of units from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division from Pskov, the 31st Guards Airborne Brigade from Ulyanovsk and the 45th Special Forces Reconnaissance Regiment located in Kubinka outside Moscow. The 22nd Spetsnaz brigade has also been alleged to be located in Crimea. But beyond the speculation on units in the region, the Southern Military District, which covers the North Caucasus and is next to Ukraine, has some of the most modern and well-staffed military units due to it covering the restive Caucasus—including the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And in the event more troops are needed, there are numerous Interior Ministry (VV) forces based in the Caucasus region that could be called upon—including more Spetsnaz units.
It is clear that any potential shooting conflict between Ukraine and Russia would be manifestly different from the 2008 war with Georgia, both due to the dramatically increased capability of Ukrainian forces—compared to Georgia—and because of Russia’s modernizatsiia efforts. Let’s hope we don’t get an opportunity to see just how different.