- Title: Why Ukrainian forces gave up Crimea without a fight - and NATO is alert
- Date: 24th July 2017
- Summary: PHOTO OF UKRAINIAN TANK
- Embargoed: 7th August 2017 09:21
- Keywords: Russia Ukraine Crimea military annexation
- Location: VARIOUS LOCATIONS
- City: VARIOUS LOCATIONS
- Country: Various
- Topics: Conflicts/War/Peace
- Reuters ID: LVA0096R2RRYF
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: EDITORS PLEASE NOTE: THIS EDIT CONTAINS PROFANITY
The career of Sergei Yeliseyev helps to explain why Ukraine's armed forces gave up Crimea almost without a fight - and why NATO now says it is alert to Russian attempts to undermine military loyalty in its eastern European members.
His rise to become number two in the Ukrainian navy long before Russia seized Crimea illustrates the divided loyalties that some personnel in countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union might still face.
Yeliseyev's roots were in Russia but he ended up serving Ukraine, a different ex-Soviet republic, only to defect when put to the test. NATO military planners now believe Moscow regards people with similarly ambiguous personal links as potentially valuable, should a new confrontation break out with the West.
In 2014, Yeliseyev was first deputy commander of the Ukrainian fleet, then largely based in Crimea, when Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms took control of Kiev's ships and military bases on the peninsula.
Instead of resisting, Yeliseyev quit and subsequently got a new job: deputy chief of Russia's Baltic Fleet.
Yeliseyev, now aged 55, did not respond to Reuters questions sent to him via the Russian defence ministry.
In Kiev, however, there is no doubt where his loyalties lay. "When he took an oath of allegiance to Ukraine these were empty words for him. He was always pro-Russian," said Ihor Voronchenko, now commander of the Ukrainian navy, who once served with Yeliseyev.
In fact, the Russian soldiers were pushing at an open door in late February 2014 - Yeliseyev was just one of many to defect and almost all Ukrainian forces in Crimea failed to resist.
Russia annexed Crimea the following month, prompting a major row with the West which deepened over Moscow's role in a rebellion in eastern Ukraine that lasts to this day.
At the time, Moscow and its allies in Crimea exploited weaknesses within Kiev's military to undermine its ability to put up a fight, according to interviews conducted by Reuters with about a dozen people on both sides of the conflict.
The Russian defence ministry did not respond to questions on their accounts of the events in 2014 submitted by Reuters.
One NATO commander told Reuters that, in a re-run of the tactics it deployed in Crimea, Russian intelligence was trying to recruit ethnic Russians serving in the militaries of countries on its borders.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the commander said the alliance was particularly sensitive to the risk in countries with high concentrations of ethnic Russians, notably the Baltic states.
NATO had to guard against this, said the commander, though the risk should not be overstated because having Russian roots did not necessarily mean that a person's loyalty is to Moscow.
Officials in the Baltic states, former Soviet republics which unlike Ukraine are NATO members, play down the danger.
Russia's actions were not the only factor in the Crimean events. Ukraine's military had suffered years of neglect, there was a power vacuum in Kiev after the government was overthrown, and many Crimean residents felt more affinity with Moscow.
Still, Ukrainian service personnel with Russian ties switched sides when the annexation began and some officers pretended to put up resistance only to avoid court-martial. Moscow also intercepted orders from Kiev so they never reached the Crimean garrison.
Voronchenko, who was another deputy commander of the navy at the time of the annexation, said he had received invitations to defect to Moscow's side soon after the Russian operation began.
These, he told Reuters, came from Sergei Aksyonov, who was then head of Crimea's self-proclaimed pro-Russian government, as well as from the commander of Russia's southern military district and a deputy Russian defence minister.
Asked what they offered in exchange, Voronchenko said: "Posts, an apartment ... Aksyonov offered to make me defence minister of Crimea." Neither Aksyonov nor the Russian defence ministry responded to Reuters questions about the contacts.
Voronchenko, in common with many other senior Ukrainian officers, had been in the Soviet military alongside people now serving in the Russian armed forces. He had spent years in Crimea, where Russia leased bases from Ukraine for its Black Sea fleet after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.
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