Ukraine on Friday accused Russia of invading its territory when a convoy of trucks Russia claims is carrying humanitarian aid crossed the border and headed for Luhansk, one of two cities controlled by separatists who seek Russian annexation.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko described the entry of the trucks without his government’s consent as a “flagrant violation of international law.”
Ukraine said its forces had entered the city of Luhansk on Sunday after pro-Russian militants who declared a breakaway republic there shot down a fighter jet in the area overnight.
The MiG-29’s pilot ejected and was recovered by the army, a military spokesman said.
In Donetsk, the only other major city in the east of Ukraine that is still largely under rebel control, heavy shelling was heard throughout the night.
Since President Petro Poroshenko assumed office in June, Ukraine’s forces have progressively driven back the separatists, prompting worries in Western capitals that Russia might intervene militarily to prevent the insurrection’s collapse. NATO warned on Monday there was a “high probability” Russia would do so. Read more “Ukrainian Troops Enter Rebel Stronghold, Jet Shot Down”
Ukraine said on Friday it had destroyed part of a Russian armored column that had entered its territory overnight. Russia rejected the accusation as “some kind of fantasy” and blamed Ukraine instead for sabotaging its delivery of aid into eastern areas of the country where separatists it supports appear to be losing the fight against government forces.
A convoy of some 280 trucks carrying food, medicine and water left the suburbs of Moscow early Tuesday morning for the northeast of Ukraine. While Russia promoted the effort as a humanitarian operation, Western countries urged it not to use the delivery of aid as a pretext for an invasion.
According to Ukraine, Russia has massed some 45,000 troops on its border. NATO warned on Monday there was a “high probability” the country might intervene militarily in its former satellite state now that the separatists it has backed are on the defensive.
“We must be extremely careful because this could be a cover for the Russians to install themselves near Luhansk and Donetsk and put us before a done deed,” France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told France Info Radio on Monday. The two cities are among the few still controlled by the rebels. Read more “Russia Sends Aid Convoy to Ukraine, NATO Fears Invasion”
Ukraine said on Monday its troops continued to drive rebels back in the east of the country, toward the border with neighboring Russia which has supported the separatist uprising.
The speed of the offensive appeared to have taken the rebel leadership by surprise. Alexander Borodai, the self-appointed prime minister of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, reportedly left Ukraine for Moscow. Ukrainian media reported that rebel commander Igor Bezler fled the city of Horlivka on Sunday as it was attacked by government forces.
At an improvised news conference on Monday, rebel commander Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov, said the Ukrainian military had used “an unexpected amount of artillery.” He claimed the army had deployed “mercenaries” to fight his rebels, some “of the negroid race.”
Authorities in Kiev said soldiers retook the towns of Torez and Shakhtarsk from the separatists while fighting was in progress in the area where a commercial airliner was shot down two weeks ago. Ukrainian army units reconquered Sievierodonetsk, a city north of the rebel stronghold of Luhansk, on Sunday.
Another rebel leader, Vladimir Antyufeyev, told reporters in Donetsk that his fighters had attempted to escort foreign forensic experts to the plane’s crash site but encountered fighting and turned back.
Investigators from the Netherlands, which lost 193 nationals when a Malaysia Airlines jet was brought down over the conflict area, said they where unable to reach the crash site on Sunday.
After consulting with the European country’s foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, on Monday, President Petro Poroshenko promised not to order Ukrainian army operations within a radius of twenty kilometers from where the plane came down.
Western countries believe the rebels shot down the passenger jet, mistaking it for an Ukrainian military transport plane, with missiles that were supplied by Russia. Russia denies it gave the separatists any weapons — yet Russian weapons have found their way into eastern Ukraine.
Antyufeyev himself is a Russian citizen and was named deputy prime minister of the Donetsk republic after Borodai briefly visited Moscow earlier this month.
A former Soviet special police officer, Antyufeyev was involved in an attempt to overthrow the government of Latvia when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He then took control of the security forces of Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, which is home to a large ethnic Russian minority, a position he held until 2012.
After Russia annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March, lawmakers in Transnistria asked to join the Russian Federation as well.
The separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine similarly seek Russian annexation. Russia has stopped short of endorsing their attempts to secede from Ukraine and proposed turning the country into a federation instead. Ukraine’s government sees this as a ploy to permanently divide the country between the regions in the west that tend to favor closer relations with the rest of Europe and the largely Russian-speaking southeast.
On Sunday, the United States accused Russia of firing across the border at the Ukrainian military. Videos purporting to show Russian armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles and missile launchers moving across the frontier were uploaded to YouTube the same day.
Since a commercial airliner crashed in eastern Ukraine on Thursday — brought down, in all likelihood, by a pro-Russian militants — Russian president Vladimir Putin has cast the blame solely on Ukraine’s government, saying it “bears responsibility” for the deaths of close to three hundred passengers and crew.
With the separatist insurgency seemingly at an impasse and Russia’s most important European trading partner, Germany, warning on Saturday that this is Putin’s “last chance,” after it previously resisted sanctions, why won’t the Russian leader back down?
Since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimea in March, following mass protests in Kiev that toppled the relatively pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich, it has accomplished little more than uniting the vast majority of Ukrainians and world opinion against it.
In the months leading up to Yanukovich’s resignation, Russia had tried to dissuade Ukraine from entering into an association agreement with the European Union, hoping to lure the former Soviet republic into its own Eurasian Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan instead. When Yanukovich budged to Russian pressure, he was promptly ousted. His successor, Petro Poroshenko, who was elected in May on a promise to put down the uprising in the east, signed the European treaty last month, putting Ukraine on a track to membership.
The separatists in southeastern Ukraine, inspired by what happened in the Crimea, still hope Russia will annex them. But Putin has given no indication he intends to. Rather, he formally renounced the right to intervene militarily in Ukraine last month, a permission he had been given by the Russian Senate, although Russian support for the rebels appears to have continued since.
To what end?
Daniel Berman, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, argues at The Restless Realist that Putin finds himself trapped. “There is no clear political objective behind the separatist campaign that Moscow can sell as a victory,” he suggests, “but their abandonment would almost certainly lead to a clearcut defeat.”
A defeat for the rebels, or a withdrawal of Russian support, would be seen as a defeat for Russia as well, “roughly equal in significance to the victory in Crimea,” writes András Tóth-Czifra, a political scientist who blogs about Russian politics.
Russian propaganda has so strongly made the separatists’ case, claiming they are rightly fighting for their identity and language in the face of a “fascist” regime in Kiev bent on oppressing them, that one in four Russians would support military intervention in Ukraine — up from 31 percent in May.
Western condemnations are unlikely to change those numbers. Many Russians support Putin’s policy because they see him as standing up to their old enemy, the United States.
As Tóth-Czifra puts it, “Vladimir Putin has no choice, internationally, but to immediately and distinctly cease supporting separatism in eastern Ukraine. And he has no choice, domestically, but to cling on to it.”
The Malaysia Airlines crash has only put Putin in a tougher spot, adds Berman. He must now decide “between appearing callous and strong or compassionate and weak.” His statements blaming the Ukrainian government and Russian media’s conspiracy theories suggest he has opted for the former. Putin might know it were the rebels who shot down the plane but there is nothing he can do about it. Russia has lost control over the insurgency it helped create.
“What he can do,” according to Berman, “is give the impression that Russia neither cares nor can be touched by the fury of foreigners, which will serve the purpose of focusing the Russian public’s anger at the Western countries who will condemn Russia’s actions rather than on the policies that brought about the downing.”
A commercial airliner crashed in the east of Ukraine on Thursday, apparently killing almost three hundred passengers and crew, in what the country’s president, Petro Poroshenko, described as a terrorist attack.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry specifically accused pro-Russian separatists of having shot down the jet.
Ukrainian forces took control of Sloviansk on Saturday, a city in the east of the country that had been held for months by separatists seeking to join Russia.
Ukrainian officials touted the army’s victory as a major step forward in their attempt to pacify southeastern Ukraine while the rebels acknowledged the loss of the city.
Aleksandr Borodai, a leader of the breakaway Donetsk region that declared itself independent in April, was quoted by the Russian Interfax news agency as saying, “Given the disproportionate numerical superiority of the enemy troops, units of the armed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic were forced to leave their previous positions on the northern sector of the front.” Read more “Ukraine Signs Europe Pact, Recaptures Rebel Stronghold”
Ukrainian authorities accused Russia on Thursday of sending tanks into the country in support of the separatist uprising there, heightening tensions between the two states a day after Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, said he was ready to negotiate.
Interior minister Arsen Avakov said three Russian tanks and other military vehicles had crossed the border into Ukraine on Thursday at a checkpoint controlled by pro-Russian separatists in the Luhansk region, leading to a skirmish between Russian and Ukrainian forces. He claimed part of the Russian column had been destroyed.