This week Russia stepped up its involvement in Ukraine, apparently sending in Russian troops to open a new front in the war. The town of Novoazovsk, close to the Russian border, was smashed by Russian troops and the Ukrainian army sent fleeing towards Mariupol. The new and more open involvement in the conflict was accompanied today by President Putin calling for “talks on statehood for Eastern Ukraine”, a sign that he is not backing down. So is it certain that Russian forces are operating in Ukraine? What’s so new about this latest turn in the conflict? And why now?
Firstly, it is clear that despite Russian denials, their role has greatly been stepped up. The city taken by the pro-Russian forces is a long way from the current fighting, separated by Ukrainian territory from the rebels and close to the Russian border. NATO has also released satellite imagery of whole columns of armoured vehicles heading into Ukraine from Russia. Footage of an armoured convoy analysed by experts shows a new variant of Russian tank that has not yet been exported, meaning it must have come directly from Russia. Russian military families have reported mysterious deaths of soldiers, and difficulty contacting their relatives in the army. Finally, last week ten Russian paratroopers were captured inside Eastern Ukraine. While they said that they were there under orders, the Russian government insisted that they were ‘lost’. This seems rather unlikely.
While Russia has been supporting the rebels since the beginning, feeding them weapons and allowing volunteers to cross the border, this is the most serious incident of Russian units being directly and more openly involved. Russia continues to claim that all Russians in Eastern Ukraine are ‘volunteers’ or ‘soldiers on holiday’. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta responded to this with a picture of tanks and the question “Are they also on their holidays?” The fact that Russian troops were used to take a whole town in a fairly open manner shows a change of tactics by the Kremlin.
Putin has had to face the fact that his insurgency in the Donbass region was failing. The Ukrainian army had been pressing forward all summer, taking territory and beginning to shell the centres of rebel authority (causing civilian causalities as well). The Ukrainian government were holding tight to their aim of ending the war before entering talks on increased autonomy for the East. This presented a problem to Putin. If the rebels collapsed, and the army took back Donetsk and Luhansk, it would weaken Putin’s hand. Starting up a whole new insurgency would be extremely difficult, and the pretext of Russian “peacekeepers” being necessary would no longer be present. A functioning insurgency is absolutely necessary for Putin to keep options open, and pressure on Kyiv.
To avoid this collapse, Russia has ramped up its involvement in the face of intense international condemnation. The Ukrainian army has been pushed back in numerous areas, and the opening of a new southern front will stretch its capabilities. Putin’s statement today supporting “talks on statehood for Eastern Ukraine” indicates both a possible long term goal and a short term aim of forcing Kyiv to the negotiating table. The use of Russian troops will only increase, as Putin cannot let the rebel cities fall.
However, the fact remains that the Ukrainians have no valid opponent to negotiate with. The rebels Putin wants them to sit at a table with are for the most part a mix of Russian volunteers and local nobodies. They have not been elected by the locals, and the fighting is led by Chechens of all people. Furthermore, their brutality towards the local people they propose to represent is intolerable. Recently a woman who gave food to Ukrainian army units was arrested, tortured, then displayed at a roundabout draped in a Ukrainian flag so that she could be beaten and abused by passersby. The Christian university where my parents used to teach has been taken over by Russian fighters who forced the staff out at gunpoint, only allowing them to take their belongings after a day of negotiation – part of a pattern of persecution of Christians by the separatists. Captured Ukrainian soldiers were recently humiliated by being marched through the city centre, with street cleaners behind them to ‘cleanse their filth’. These are the people Putin wants the Ukrainian government to ‘negotiate’ with.
It’s true that army shelling of rebel-held areas is causing causalities, and this is something that has been criticised by human rights organisations. However, when hearing Russian criticism of this, it’s worth remembering that it was they who reduced the Chechen capital of Grozny to the “most destroyed city on earth” by firing everything up to ballistic missiles at residential areas. While Russia has genuine interests in Ukraine, they and their proxies are directly responsible for the destruction of the Donbass and the deaths of thousands – including the passengers of flight MH17. Tragically, with Putin saying that the end of the conflict is “impossible to predict”, it is clear that they will not be letting up.