Russia has abandoned the idea of promoting independence for the Ukrainian breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, a liberal newspaper in the country reported on Monday. But that might not be enough to satisfy the West.
A report in the Novaya Gazeta — one of the few Russian newspaper critical of President Vladimir Putin’s government that has been allowed to remain in circulation — cites Kremlin sources saying they have given up fostering independence for the Russophone areas in the southeast of Ukraine and instead intend to “push the republics back into Ukraine on conditions of some kind of autonomy.” Read more “Russia Believed to Give Up on Donetsk, Luhansk Self-Rule”
NATO said on Wednesday it had observed columns of Russian military equipment entering southeastern Ukraine since the beginning of the week while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe feared an assault on the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
Speaking in Sofia, Bulgaria, Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove said Russian air defenses, artillery, tanks and troops had crossed the border into Ukraine. “We do not have a good picture at this time of how many,” he said. “We agree that there are multiple columns that we have seen.”
Russia might have escalated its involvement in the separatist uprising in southeastern Ukraine in order to force its neighbor into a more favorable ceasefire with its proxies there, suggests Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley who specializes in the former Soviet Union.
Ukraine accused Russia last week of sending dozens more artillery guns and tanks into the Donbas border region where two breakaway republics have requested annexation by Russia.
Russia had appeared to be drawing down its support for the rebels after a truce was signed in Belarus’ capital Minsk two months ago.
However, the truce was continually violated by both sides through the months of September and October. The fighting remained at a stalemate. The separatists were unable to significantly expand their territory while the Ukrainian army struggled to hold them back. Ukraine’s government also shied away from launching an offensive against the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk for fear of incurring civilian casualties there. Read more “Why Russia Can’t Accept the Status Quo in Ukraine”
Ukraine accused its neighbor Russia on Friday of escalating the fighting in the Donbas region where pro-Russian separatists held an election last week that they say showed popular support for independence from Ukraine.
An Ukrainian military spokesman said a column of 32 Russian tanks, sixteen artillery guns and thirty trucks carrying ammunition and troops had crossed the border into southeastern Ukraine. NATO reported an increase in Russian equipment and troops along the Ukrainian border but could not yet confirm that tanks had entered the country.
Russia previously sent tanks and troops into Ukraine when the rebels fighting in the areas around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk appeared on the verge of being defeated by Ukraine’s army. Russian support gave the separatists the upper hand and the military situation in southeast Ukraine had seemed at a stalemate since.
Continued Russian support for the separatists in southeastern Ukraine appears to have frozen the conflict which could lead to the permanent, if internationally largely unrecognized, breakaway of the Donbas region.
The Ukrainian military said on Sunday Russia continued to move equipment and troops into the rebel enclave. In Donetsk, the largest city held by the separatist, journalists saw some twenty trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns heading in the direction of the airport where fighting with government forces continues to take place despite the signing of a ceasefire last month.
The truce, which was reached in Belarus’ capital Minsk, called for the establishment of a buffer zone thirty kilometers wide around the territory the rebels controlled at the time. The Ukrainian government has since deployed border guards along this new internal frontier. Read more “Donbas’ Secession Looks Increasingly Permanent”
Ukraine agreed to cease fire with pro-Russian separatists on Saturday and establish a buffer zone thirty kilometers wide around the territory they control that will be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The promises are part of an accord that was reached in Belarus’ capital Minsk between representatives from Moscow and Kiev and envoys from the self-proclaimed people’s republics in the east of Ukraine that previously requested annexation by Russia.
Fighting nevertheless continued overnight in Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, while on Saturday, a third convoy of trucks Russia insists are carrying aid entered Ukraine without the government’s permission. Explosions and shelling were also heard in Donetsk, the largest industrial city in the east of the country and one of the insurrection’s two urban strongholds, the other being Luhansk farther north.
If the militants conquer Mariupol, they could establish an overland connection from the breakaway provinces in the east to the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Russia took from Ukraine in March.
Russia denies it actively supports the Ukrainian uprising but satellite images released by NATO last month, showing Russian artillery units crossing the border, and reports from foreign journalists in Ukraine belie that claim. Russian soldiers have also been apprehended in Ukraine.
In late August, the separatists seemed on the verge of defeat, having been driven back by the Ukrainian army into the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Renewed Russian support, including the arrival of armor and troops, then tilted the battle in favor of the rebels.
Under the Minsk agreement, foreign troops, mercenaries and weapons are to be withdrawn from Ukraine altogether.
Russian ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, who represented his country at the talks, said, “Mercenaries, it must be admitted, are present from both sides. And these facts have been repeatedly cited by our colleagues. Those whom we call mercenaries are present.”
The accords do not resolve the future status of Ukraine’s eastern territories where the majority of its Russian speakers reside. Parliament gave the regions around Donetsk and Luhansk “special status” on Tuesday although it is still unclear exactly what this will entail.
Russia has recommended the federalization of Ukraine, giving regions control over economic and even foreign policy. Authorities in Kiev see this as a ploy to permanently divide their country between a west that favors closer relations with the rest of Europe and the Russophone southeast — although Russia’s aggression appears to have changed public sentiment even there with a vast majority of Ukrainians now supporting a pro-Western policy.
Despite a ceasefire that was brokered between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country less than two days earlier, fighting resumed on Sunday on the northern outskirts of the city of Donetsk and near the port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
A Reuters reporter saw plumes of black smoke filling the sky near Donetsk’s airport which had been in the hands of government forces. Mortar blasts were heard within the city confines during the night, damaging a bridge where rebels had erected a roadblock.
Donetsk is one of the rebel strongholds in the Russophone east of Ukraine where two breakaway republics have requested annexation by Russia.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said on Thursday that Russian forces had entered his country and the military situation in the eastern Donetsk region was “rapidly deteriorating.”
The aim of the Russian offensive seemed to be the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. From there, Russia could establish an overland connection with the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea it took from Ukraine in March.
NATO released satellites images the same day which it said corroborated Poroshenko’s claim. The pictures depict Russian artillery units crossing the border and preparing for action by establishing firing positions in the area of Krasnodon, the alliance said in a statement.
It appears that the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I have feared since March has now begun in earnest, with the opening of a new front in the vicinity of Mariupol on the shores of the Azov Sea and a major counterattack in Luhansk Oblast leading to the retreat of Ukrainian forces from positions they have occupied (in some cases) since before the June ceasefire. This separatist counteroffensive has generated a lot of discussion among analysts and commentators about whether the forces attacking Novoazovsk and Mariupol belong to regular Russian units or irregular forces, as part of an effort to determine whether or not these new developments amount to a Russian invasion or just a new escalation by separatist forces.
I would argue that the specific provenance of the fighters involved doesn’t actually matter very much in this context. There is no doubt that the forces attacking in the south, near Novoazovsk and Mariupol, came directly from Russia, not from territory already controlled by the separatists farther north. To do so, they had to be allowed through the border by Russian border guards.
Furthermore, there is also no doubt that they are using weapons and equipment supplied by the Russian government, since they are no longer even trying to claim that the equipment they are using was captured from defeated Ukrainian forces.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday said Ukraine’s territorial integrity was an essential aim of German foreign policy and argued that a lack of controls along the country’s long eastern border with Russia stood in the way of ending the separatist uprising there. “An open border, that allows weapons to come in from Russia, won’t do,” she said.