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Russian military along Ukraine border is an upgraded force.

Byline: C.J.Chivers

PEREVALNOYE, Crimea -- As Russian troops and extralegal militias swiftly seized Crimea from Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin maintained a falsehood. The impressively equipped and disciplined conventional troops that enveloped Ukrainian military bases, he said, were not Russian.

In doing so, the Kremlin missed an opportunity to highlight a significant logistical and strategic success: the broad overhaul of Russian military forces that has been many years in the works. In Crimea, a newly refitted element of the Russian army was visible in action for the first time.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's army had relied principally on dated equipment and conscripted personnel. To observe Russian units through 2008 was to see a tired and dilapidated force. It was, in the eyes of many Russian veterans, a national shame, even if it easily batted aside an inept Georgian army six years ago.

The rapid-deployment Russian forces that showed up in Crimea were utterly different.

Meanwhile, the estimated 40,000 Russian troops poised along the border with Ukraine are capable of executing an attack order on 12 hours' notice, according to the American general who commands all NATO forces in Europe.

Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove said that despite Russian claims it was beginning to withdraw troops, it is not yet apparent that any significant number are leaving the border area.

As Tyler Hicks, Noah Sneider and I walked and drove among these remolded Russian units, I snapped images using my iPhone that showed details of a force in the midst of an upgrade -- encrypted tactical radios in the hands of low-level troops, new or specialized firearms, and state-of-the-art electronic jamming equipment being transported along the Crimean roads. (When the Russian forces launched operations against Ukrainian bases, phones in the area often went dead.)

The iPhone, though a limited photographic tool, did offer advantages over a traditional camera in the peculiar circumstances of Crimea. Not only was it unobtrusive, but when a phone signal was available I could swiftly email photographs to an inbox, an easy safeguard against Russian troops or the armed men who worked with them who stopped journalists and demanded that images be deleted, a common occurrence on the peninsula in recent weeks. The images could then be posted on Instagram, creating a public record for sources to help analyze.

In that Instagram account are a series of images of Russian troops and their equipment that show a force emerging from a long period of decrepitude.

One image shows some of the Russian military's updated "Ratnik'' (from the Russian for "warrior'') kit, including a new helmet and ballistic goggles. But more important is the machine gun. It is a Pecheneg, a modern replacement for the long-serving PK machine gun line, a Soviet and Russian staple since the 1960s.

Another image shows a tail view of one of Russia's premier electronic jamming systems, known as R-330Zh Zhitel), manufactured by Protek in Voronezh, Russia. Thanks to John Ismay (@johnismay) and Alexander Boroda (@spearpoint84) for tracking down this identification.)

The Zhitel was tailed by this new system, which is apparently seeing its Russian military debut action abroad -- a Tigr-M MKTK REI PP electronic warfare vehicle. This electronic countermeasure team came at us fast on a remote two-lane road in western Ukraine. I had time only to turn around and snap quick frames through a rear windshield as we blew past each other, headed in opposite directions. The standard Tigr platform is a 4-by-4 armored vehicle and Russia's answer to the American Humvee. Judging by the large number of Tigrs seen in Crimea, Russia has been distributing these vehicles to its land forces, at least to high-priority units.

The detail in one image is easy to miss.

These are parts of a push-to-talk encrypted two-way radio system that is also part of the "Ratnik'' upgrade.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Apr 3, 2014
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