Putin Storms Ukraine

A bad situation turns seriously worse.

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 10.30.26 PMYesterday, Ukrainian President Petro O. Poroshenko declared that Russia had invaded his nation. Col. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian military, confirmed that two armored columns of Russian forces, replete with tanks and armored fighting vehicles, captured the town of Novoazovsk on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Ukrainian troops were forced to retreat in the face of superior fighting power that included Grad missiles launched from Russian territory. “Our border servicemen and guardsmen retreated as they did not have heavy equipment,” Lysenko said in a statement.

NATO released a series of satellite images further confirming that at least 1,000 soldiers and Russian artillery units were operating in Ukraine. Captured in late August, the images show the artillery units moving through the Ukrainian countryside and establishing firing positions near Krasnodon, Ukraine. "Over the past two weeks we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia’s military interference in Ukraine,” said Dutch Brigadier General Nico Tak, director of the Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Centre (CCOMC), Allied Command Operations. "The satellite images released today provide additional evidence that Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, are operating inside Ukraine’s sovereign territory.”

Tak further noted the overall scope of the invasion was much wider than the current effort. "We have also detected large quantities of advanced weapons, including air defense systems, artillery, tanks, and armored personnel carriers being transferred to separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine,” he explained. "The presence of these weapons along with substantial numbers of Russian combat troops inside Ukraine make the situation increasingly grave.”

The motive for doing so was also illuminated. "Russia is reinforcing and resupplying separatist forces in a blatant attempt to change the momentum of the fighting, which is currently favoring the Ukrainian military,” Tak added. "Russia’s ultimate aim is to alleviate pressure on separatist fighters in order to prolong this conflict indefinitely, which would result in further tragedy for the people of Eastern Ukraine.”

President Poroshenko cancelled a scheduled trip to Turkey and convened an emergency meeting of the Ukrainian security and defense council to determine what steps his government would take to address the crisis. "I made the decision to cancel a working visit to the Republic of Turkey in connection with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Donetsk region, in particular in Amvrosiyivka and Starobesheve, as Russian troops have actually been brought into Ukraine," he said in a statement on the presidential website. Poroshenko also requested the meeting of the U.N. Security Council that took place yesterday afternoon.

Lysenko stated that Russian troops began entering Ukraine shortly after midnight, adding that “Russian servicemen” are in control of several other localities around Novoazovsk. There are also reports of a Russian BM-27 Uragan missile system in the area.

The satellite images paint a grim picture. In addition to the strategic setups in and around Krasnodon, the images show a steady buildup of Russian forces on the Russian side of the border near Rostov-on-Don, approximately 31 miles from the Dovzhansky, Ukraine border crossing. Between June and late August, a conglomeration of battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, cargo trucks and tented accommodations were established, with NATO insisting it represents "one example of the multiple encampments that Russia has positioned near its border with Eastern Ukraine.” Another image shows what appear to be a half dozen Russian 153mm 2S19 self-propelled guns located in Russia near Kuybyshevo, which sits only four miles south of the Ukrainian border, near the village of Chervonyi Zhovten. According to NATO the guns are pointed north, "directly towards Ukrainian territory.”

Ukrainian forces are fortifying their positions 28 miles west of Novoazovsk, around the port city of Mariupol, anticipating that Russian forces will attempt to secure a road link to Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed last March. If successful, Russia and/or the separatists would gain a direct land corridor to the peninsula, as well as control of the entire Sea of Azov, thought to contain extensive gas and mineral deposits. National Guard spokesman Ruslan Muzychuk told the AP in Mariupo that Ukrainian troops currently control the area, even as he too insisted his government had proof the Russians were moving large amounts of weaponry into Novoazovsk, presumably headed for Mariupo and a seemingly critical confrontation.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a rebel commander and the prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, also confirmed the presence of 4,000 Russian troops in Ukraine, but insisted that many of them were active-duty soldiers on leave who have “volunteered” to fight for freedom. “There are active soldiers fighting among us who preferred to spend their vacation not on the beach, but with us, among their brothers, who are fighting for their freedom,” he said in an interview on Russian state-run television.

Unsurprisingly, Russia has once again denied the incursion is happening. A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry told Russia media sources that "this information has no relation to reality,” and that units on the Ukrainian side of the border were simply engaged in "tactical training exercises on their own and outlying ranges” and that such efforts "were the normal work of any army.” Andrey Kelin, Russian representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also toed the company line, contending that “no Russian involvement has been spotted, there are no soldiers or equipment present.” “Accusations relating to convoys of armored personnel carriers have been heard during the past week and the week before that,” he added. “All of them were proven false back then, and are being proven false again now.”

Not quite. On Tuesday, Ukraine announced the Monday capture of ten Russian paratroopers who had “accidentally” crossed the border, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. "These servicemen really did take part in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossing it likely by mistake at an unequipped and unmarked point,” a Ministry source told Russian media.

Ella Polyakova, a member of President Vladimir Putin's advisory council on human rights, contradicted those assessments, insisting that a Russian invasion is taking place. "When masses of people, under commanders' orders, on tanks, APCs and with the use of heavy weapons, (are) on the territory of another country, cross the border, I consider this an invasion,” she said.

European leaders were on board with Polyakova’s characterization. German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin demanding an explanation. French President Francois Hollande characterized Russia's actions as “intolerable” and warned of further sanctions if they continue. "Russia cannot simultaneously aspire to be a world power in the 21st century and not play by the rules,” he said in a speech to French ambassadors. He was echoed by British Prime Minister David Cameron who also spoke of unspecified “consequences” if Russian continued its “large scale incursions.” Cameron insisted that Putin’s stated desire to end the conflict peacefully “is not credible when Russia is supporting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with arms and troops,” even as he warned the effort "must cease immediately.”

The Obama administration also accused Russia of orchestrating the fighting, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki contending the latest incursions "indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway in Donetsk and Luhansk.” Donetsk is the largest city held by rebel forces and 11 people were reported killed by shelling Wednesday night.

At yesterday's U.N. Security Council meeting, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Power continued leveling accusations at the Russians. "Russian soldiers, tanks and air defense have supported and fight alongside separatists as they open a new front in a crisis manufactured and fueled by Russia,” she declared, further noting that Russia had been called to account on other occasions. "At every step, Russia has become before this council to say everything but the truth. It has manipulated, obfuscated and outright lied,” she added.

Power also urged the Security Council to take immediate action. "How can we tell those countries that border Russia that their peace and sovereignty is guaranteed if we do not make our message heard on Ukraine?" she asked. "The cost of inaction is unacceptable.”

NATO is apparently preparing for action. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that the organization will for the first time deploy forces at new bases in Eastern Europe, to counter Putin’s aggression and protect Baltic States that were former Soviet satellites. The plan is to be unveiled at a meeting in Wales next week when NATO seeks to overcome divisions within the alliance, with the ultimate aim of securing an agreement to station troops along the Russian border. "We will adopt what we call a readiness action plan with the aim to be able to act swiftly in this completely new security environment in Europe,” said Rasmussen. "We have something already called the NATO response force, whose purpose is to be able to be deployed rapidly if needed. Now it's our intention to develop what I would call a spearhead within that response force at very, very high readiness.”

He also illuminated sobering reality. "We have to face the reality that Russia does not consider NATO a partner,” he explained. "Russia is a nation that unfortunately for the first time since the second world war has grabbed land by force. Obviously we have to adapt to that.” So does Putin, who is sure to be infuriated by the move.

Late yesterday afternoon the New York Times reported that President Poroshenko ordered mandatory conscription into the Ukrainian army, which was suspended last year, be reinstated. “The situation is certainly extremely difficult and nobody is going to simplify it,” Mr. Poroshenko said. “Still, it is controlled enough for us to refrain from panic.”

Perhaps it is—for now. Yet one is left to wonder how long such “control” can be maintained. Vladimir Putin’s expansionist urges have been extremely popular among the Russian people who share his vision of a resuscitated “empire.” How far he and they are willing to go to maintain that worldview may determine the fate, not just of Russia and Ukraine, but the entire continent of Europe. It wouldn’t be the first time national pride ignited a widespread conflagration.

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