Tensions in Ukraine have escalated dramatically over the last forty eight hours, with Kiev and NATO accusing Russia of having at least 1,000 active troops currently in the country fighting on the side of the Donbas rebels. Moscow has predictably denied those charges.
Most alarming to Kiev, its offensive to recapture Donetsk and Luhansk has stalled and has been dramatically reversed in the last few days due to the alleged influx of overt Russian support and even Russian troops, culminating with the fall yesterday of the strategic southern coastal town of Novoazovsk to rebel forces.
*** While Moscow continues to deny direct Russian involvement in this counter-offensive, knowledgeable sources indicate the statement yesterday by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the new leader of the “Donetsk Republic,” claiming that as many as 4,000 Russian active force “volunteers” are fighting on the rebel side, was far from a gaffe. It appears in fact to have been a warning deliberately coordinated with Moscow to Kiev that Ukrainian forces are now fighting Russia. The crystal clear conclusion of that message to Kiev is that there simply will be no military victory over the Eastern rebels, as they had so keenly anticipated as their offensive looked to be gaining ground up to just a few days before. ***
*** At Tuesday’s summit discussions in Minsk with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, we are told that Russian President Vladimir Putin exhibited a confidence and determination that was a marked shift from his earlier tone, especially after the shooting of flight MH17. This is understood to have reflected a decision already made to draw a military red line that would reverse and shake off the sense of entrapment that had been creeping over Moscow the previous few weeks in facing the prospect of the political, economic, and military humiliation associated with the defeat of the pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas. ***
*** Sources close to the Kremlin maintain there is still room for negotiations and de-escalation, especially now that the military conflict has effectively evened out. But they add that the US and Europe must now pressure Poroshenko to immediately come to the table to negotiate a cease-fire with representatives of eastern Ukraine – that no longer include any Russian nationals – and that the negotiations address the key issue of regional decentralization. That Putin used the loaded term “Novorossiya” – the tsarist era Russian term also used by the rebels for the southeastern Ukrainian region – in rambling comments to a youth organization today was a warning as such, and no coincidence. ***
Moscow appears to be encouraged that US President Barack Obama demonstrated restraint in his remarks after last night’s meeting of the National Security Council in which he didn’t characterized Russia’s latest military escalation and the alleged use of Russian “volunteers” as an “invasion,” but merely as further confirmation, albeit clearly more dangerous, of what the world already knew was happening. In other words, not an escalation of the conflict per se.
The existence of volunteer recruiting centers for Ukraine in Moscow is a thinly kept secret, and sources close to the Kremlin somewhat ominously assert an “actual” invasion would have taken a dramatically different shape and outcome than the few volunteers and command and control assistance that proved to be enough to rout the Ukrainian forces so easily.
Reacting to Europe and NATO
Furthermore, we are reminded again by Russian sources that foreign involvement in Ukraine goes both ways. While the US, NATO, and EU have all been careful to avoid direct military engagement in Ukraine, and by proxy with Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and the Czech Republic, all NATO countries, are claimed to have all in fact been providing lethal military support to Kiev, including tanks, airplanes, and volunteers.
While we have no way of confirming arms shipments to Kiev, the quip in Moscow is that rebel forces have destroyed “150%” of the number of airplanes listed for the official Ukrainian air force already. And the US, in addition to non-lethal aid, is providing logistical support that includes satellite imagery and the targeting of rebel forces to the Ukrainians.
This is not presented as a casus belli on Russia’s side, but rather as de facto evidence of a shadow engagement of hostilities between the East and West by “volunteers” and “militias” that is already well underway, one that is either not appreciated or ignored in the Western media.
It is, however, a reminder and warning that for a successful truce, and for the EU to ever repair relations with Russia, calls by the bellicose eastern European hawks led by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski for major NATO military expansion and buildup on Russia’s borders will need to be put firmly in place. Of course Russia has not done much here to help its own case.
Ukraine’s embattled Poroshenko will also need to deflect angry yet perhaps dangerously short-sighted calls made just today by Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to formally abolish Ukraine’s non-aligned status, apply for NATO membership, and even pass legislation in the Ukrainian Rada that would legislate EU membership as the country’s number one priority. Yatsenyuk’s EU legislation would literally prohibit any military, economic or political measure that could jeopardize that goal – explicitly mentioning, for example, a prohibition against a Customs Union with the former “Soviet” aggressors.
For its part, the Obama Administration has been willing to allow Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel to take the lead in mediating negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. But for all their efforts to date to keep the channel open to Putin and Moscow, both Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier feel they have been put in such an extremely embarrassing and uncomfortable situation by the rebel counteroffensive that Berlin is now weighing a further escalation of the sanctions.
But while anti-Russian sentiment now runs high in Germany, its population still remains firmly opposed to any military escalation. In a recent poll, around 65% of the Germans surveyed opposed supplying arms in any of the current military conflicts — even for fighting the barbaric ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Merkel, borrowing a page from Obama’s Syrian chemical “red-line” experience, shrewdly decided to put her decision to send arms to fight ISIS to a Bundestag vote for approval, where it will surely be defeated (including by her own party).
So for now, the Western response to the more direct Russian engagement on the ground in eastern Ukraine is going unanswered.
Window Still Open to Negotiations
Our understanding is that the window is still open on all sides in the Ukraine crisis to negotiate a cease fire and for continued longer term negotiations on Ukraine, as long as those negotiations include, for Putin as he phrased it, a discussion of “substantive” issues.
But any further negotiations from here will also now have to reflect the new reality that for all practical purposes, Kiev’s Donbas offensive has been halted, and Kiev will no longer be bargaining from the position of strength in the favorable military facts on the ground as it had envisioned up to a few days ago.
And while Russia will continue to maintain that it is not a party to a cease fire – after all it is not officially engaged in the conflict either – Moscow is now in fact very openly representing the interests of the rebels, however unofficially it may insist that may be.
And, after some rather poor abdication of responsibilities, ineptitude, and a serious overplaying of its hand by Kiev, Moscow is also increasingly acting as the self-appointed representative of the people of Donetsk and Luhansk, unofficially of course.