Ukraine’s military has scrambled territorial defense units amid the unfolding threat of an all-out Russian invasion as masses of fresh regular forces concentrate near Ukraine’s borders, with NATO and United States ringing alarm.
As Ukraine’s ground forces command reported on April 6, the drills are exercising state border defense and counter-sabotage operations in the country’s southern regions, particularly those facing the Black Sea coastline and the administrative border with Russian-occupied Crimea.
In particular, the territorial defense troops are expected to be perfecting their skills in covering coastline areas potentially vulnerable to enemy amphibious landing, and ensuring the state of curfew in populated areas and the protection of critical infrastructure.
Besides, the drills program also envisages simulated operations “to combat subversive-reconnaissance groups and other hostile forces and irregular armed formations.”
The military did not specify the number of reserve troops to be called for.
In general, Ukraine has a total of some 100,000 reservists enlisted to 25 territorial defense brigades scattered across the country and subordinated to the Armed Forces supreme command.
The units are manned by volunteering civilians expected to immediately respond to a wartime call to arms and render support to regular military units behind the lines in their home areas.
The territorial defense grid in Ukraine, however, is often criticized as extremely chaotic and shadowy in every aspect starting from enlisting manpower to field training. A bill to reform the force was filed to the Verkhovna Rada in December after years of deliberations, although its prospects for foreseeable future remain unknown.
The military’s Operational Command South, which covers the country’s Vinnytsya, Kirovohrad, Mykolaiv, Odesa, and Kherson oblasts, deploys 5 territorial defense brigades.
Upon that, numerous experts warned that Ukraine’s southern coastline may be of strategic interest to Russia, as part of the Kremlin’s long-run program of imposing power hegemony in the Black and Azov region.
According to Ben Hodges, the retired top commanding general with U.S. Army Europe in 2014-2018, Russia might have plans on seizing key ports of Odesa, Mariupol, and Berdyansk, in a bid to complete Ukraine’s economic chokehold, which should be considered among the most probable axis of a Russian all-out advance.
The ongoing crisis unfolded in late March as the Ukrainian military once again reported a sharp increase in Russian military power near its borders and in Kremlin-occupied Crimea. According to Ukraine’s general-in-chief Ruslan Khomchak, Russia has recently deployed some 25 fresh and combat-ready, combined arms battalion tactical groups, in addition to some 28 others present in close proximity to Ukraine’s north- and southeastern border. The total number of Russian soldiers activated numbers in the tens of thousands.
Tensions have skyrocketed sharply as the newly deployed Russian forces were reported to have been equipped with extensive fuel supply grid and battlefield medical infrastructure, which, according to some experts, may indicate Russian preparations for large-scale combat operations rather than routine peacetime maneuvers.
Ukrainian military intelligence on April 1 reported on Russian plans to provoke Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas into major fighting, which would give the Kremlin a pretext for an all-out invasion to “protect” the local civilian population. The crisis unfolded amid a new wave of information campaign, with Russian state media accusing Ukraine of civilian deaths in occupied Donbas and pushing narratives challenging Ukraine’s existence as an independent nation.
The worst security escalation in years put U.S. military command in Europe on top threat vigilance followed by extensive contacts between American, Russian, and Ukrainian military and political leadership.
In public, the U.S. warned Russia against the rapid transition to war and repeatedly reassured its commitment to render full support of Ukraine in case of invasion. Some European governments, namely Germany, called on “both sides” to de-escalate the explosive situation, drawing heavy criticism in media and accusations of trying to appease Russia and put the blame on the one-sided aggression’s victim, Ukraine.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, in a phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky on April 6 also affirmed the alliance’s support for Ukraine. In response, Zelensky called on NATO to increase its military presence in the Black Sea. “Such presence should become a powerful tool for the deterrence of Russia, which goes on with the region’s militarization and its impediment of commercial navigation,” Zelensky was quoted as saying on April 6.
The Ukrainian leader also said NATO should finally provide Kyiv with a Membership Action Plan, which has been sought for more than a decade.
“We’re committed to our military and defense sector reforms,” he said.
“But one can’t stop Russia by only applying reforms. NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas, and the membership plan (for Ukraine) is going to be a true signal for Russia.”
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