Can Anyone Stop Putin’s New Blitz?

A shaky cease-fire in Ukraine was shattered Wednesday morning with a new offensive by Russian-backed troops. How will the White House respond?

It looks like Vladimir Putin will spend his second summer in a row going to war.

So now the question becomes: What—if anything—will the United States and Europe do in response?

On Wednesday, Ukrainians awoke to the all-too-predictable news that Moscow-backed separatists—a contingent that consists of quite a lot of Moscow-dispatched Russian soldiers—launched a fresh, multi-pronged assault on Ukrainian-held territory. The primary targets lie west of a line of the demarcation meant to keep a cease-fire that was over before the ink had dried on the so-called “Minsk II” accords.

“Although we’re still assessing details, this is clearly a major, multi-front escalation that reflects continued non-compliance with Minsk by the combined Russian-separatist forces,” a senior Western diplomat told The Daily Beast. When asked if this was the start of a big Russian push for more terrain in the Donbas—the name for the regions encompassing Donetsk and Lugansk—one European leader replied: “Sure looks like it.”

So here’s what we know. The two main towns hit today were Marinka and Krasnogorovka, both not far from the major industrial city of Donetsk. The nearest separatist lines to these targets are the Petrovsky district of the city to the east, Aleksandrovka to the southeast and Novomikhailkovka to the northeast. Video footage, purportedly shot in Petrovsky today, clearly recorded the sounds of outbound artillery fire, with the attendant description of the footage claiming that the separatists were firing from positions in the immediate vicinity of residential high-rises. (Of course, firing from civilian areas doesn’t just violate Minsk II, but the Geneva Conventions.)

Boasts by separatists that Marinka had fallen were met with immediate denials by Kiev.

While acknowledging “a massive bombardment” by separatists using heavy artillery, Ukraine’s military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that the government was “holding off all the attacks.” His colleague, Markiyan Lubkivsky, an adviser to the head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), said 10 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and over 80 wounded. Among the dead on the other side, Lubkivsky said, SBU counterintelligence established that at least four were Russian GRU Spetsnaz (Special Forces) soldiers. If true, their presence would further underscore the Kremlin-orchestrated nature of this escalation.

The “defense minister” of the separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Vladimir Kononov, meanwhile, has alleged that 15 people were killed on his side, including fighters and civilians. He blamed a Ukrainian “provocation” for the uptick in violence, which is a bit strange given what the DNR media portal proclaimed.

The fighting cut off the electricity at two mines in the Donetsk region, Skochinsky and Zasyadko, leaving nearly 1,000 miners trapped underground. Separatists claimed that the ones at Skochinsky were being evacuated.

The play for Marinka and Krasnogorovka was also accompanied by heavy shelling, possibly using Grad missiles, against Ukrainian-held positions north of Donetsk such as the towns of Peski and Avdeyevka. And to the south, separatists also targeted Ukrainian locations at Beryozovoye, which lies in Kiev-held stretch of a strategically vital road system, the Donetsk-Mariupol highway. To the south of that, below separatist-held territory, there were further sorties on positions in Burgas, previously the site of heavy civilian casualties during Grad attacks.

Novosti Donbassa, a regional news website, reported today that Ukrainian troops had conducted an organized withdrawal from their foremost checkpoint on the stretch of highway that passes directly south of Marinka as this was too exposed to attack. As my colleague James Miller explains, the separatists have for weeks been testing Ukraine’s defenses along the demarcation line in fairly evenly spaced offensives that amount to pincer moves designed to trap Kiev between two fronts, a “strategy that has proven to be highly effective in the conflict, most notably at Ilovaisk and Debaltsevo,“ two of the hottest war zones of the conflict.

Here’s why all of this matters: Should Marinka fall and the Russians succeed in pushing the Ukrainians back from the northern stretch of the Donetsk-Mariupol highway, they’d likely next make a push for Volnovakha, a town that Kiev’s army needs to keep if it wants to maintain control of Mariupol, the crucial port city on the Sea of Azov. Putin would need Mariupol if he did indeed want to erect a “land-bridge” from mainland Russia to occupied Crimea.

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This wouldn’t be at all easy to do, however. As several analysts have noted, taking Mariupol would require some 100,000 conventional Russian troops. That would be a major departure from Putin’s game plan so far: maskirovka warfare, whereby Russia deploys insignia-less paratroops and Special Forces and dispatches advanced artillery and anti-aircraft systems into Ukraine, while strenuously denying at home and abroad that it has done any such thing.

So far, Putin’s efforts at chivvying or shutting up of the grieving mothers, sisters and wives of “Cargo 200”—the Russian code name for soldiers killed in combat—have helped keep his populace from an open rebellion against an undeclared dirty war next door. All that would change if Operation Land-Bridge got underway.

But even if Mariupol isn’t the next target, isolating and threatening it could keep Ukrainian forces bogged down enough to allow the easier taking of towns and villages in the north and west, such as Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, which were recaptured by the Ukrainian military before the Russian invasion last August.

There are large reserves of forces in the separatist-held hinterland southeast of Donetsk. On April 27, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported spotting 11 tanks and four armored personnel carriers “50 [kilometers] north of Shirokino,” a town just north of Mariupol. On May 29, the OSCE said that its monitors had encountered two women in Russian military uniforms as well as a vehicle with Russian license plates carrying armed men in the village of Petrovskoye, in this same area, east of Volnovakha. Hardly a day goes by that the OSCE doesn’t document separatist artillery, Grads, or multiple rocket-launchers gone “missing” from where they’re supposed to be parked for inspection.

At the moment, all the Pentagon will say officially is that “we’ve certainly seen the reports of increased violence. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has reported continued ceasefire violations by Russian-separatist forces,” Defense Department spokesperson Eileen Lainez told The Daily Beast.

But it doesn’t bode well that Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s Federation Council (the nation’s mostly symbolic senate), said on Wednesday that the body may meet in emergency session and asked its deputies “not to go very far away.” Matvienko was quoted accurately, but a Council representative later clarified that was only because of a possible scheduling conflict having to do with an upcoming holiday. Several observers, however, darkly recalled that the last time the upper house of Russia’s legislature convened hastily, it was to retroactively rubber-stamp Putin’s invasion of Crimea, an invasion he at first disclaimed. Putin also later copped to having made plans for seizing the peninsula long before the Euromaidan protests erupted in Kiev over a year ago, culminating in the nighttime skedaddling of pro-Putin Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych from the country.

In spite of its uninterrupted record of audacious bullshitting, the Kremlin has nevertheless enjoyed the spectacle of seeing any number of Western “experts” on Russia take its reassurances that Minsk II is still on at face value. “Novorossiya”—the name given to the dream of erecting a blood-and-soil ethnic Russian empire, of which annexing the Donbas and Crimea are said to be integral—has been obituarized repeatedly over the past several weeks; never mind that the separatists still brandish its pennant with pride gibber openly about gobbling up more of Ukraine.

In fact, as Mashable’s Christopher Miller discovered today in Moscow, the former separatist commander Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov), himself a Russian intelligence operative, has proclaimed Novorossiya alive and well. Told that Marinka may have fallen to his comrades in Ukraine, Girkin replied: “Good.”

No war is complete without its psychological dimension. Here, too, we’re given contradictory telegraphs of Moscow’s real intentions. In the forum on the Russian social media site VKontakte evocatively titled Svodki Novorossii—“Novorossiya Dispatches”—Strelkov claimed that Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s “grey cardinal” and a man sanctioned by the U.S. and E.U. for his role in fomenting the Ukraine crisis, recently met with DNR leadership. Surkov apparently “yelled a lot and was vile.” The reason? He supposedly wanted the DNR to put a cork in it and give up on Novorossiya.

This could easily be a carefully placed piece of disinformation designed to create the impression that the Kremlin didn’t authorize this latest offensive, the better to plead innocent in the inevitable diplomatic set-to with the West. It wouldn’t be the first time Putin has intimated that the proxies he says he doesn’t control have suddenly gone rogue on him. (Strelkov elsewhere admits that only an “idiot” would believe that the separatists operate without a little help from their friends in Moscow.)

Inevitably, Kiev—and, by extension, Washington and Brussels—are now faced with having to call the whole cease-fire off and risk making tough choices about how to prosecute a defensive military campaign or increase the West’s economic warfare against Russia. (The E.U. seems set on rolling over current sanctions against individuals and entities in Russia, but not necessarily issuing new ones.) Ukraine’s general staff issued a statement today saying it’ll deploy heavy weaponry back to the front lines, materiel which was withdrawn in accordance with the cease-fire. This is just as Putin would have it.

His foreign policy has ever been one of Freudian projections and double-binds. He accuses his opponents of the sins and crimes of which he himself is guilty, then fashions a trap for them whereby they lose whatever move they make. Arm Ukraine? Do that and we’ll escalate the war. Don’t arm Ukraine? We’ll escalate anyway. Abide by Minsk? We’ll violate it and blame you for breaking it. Break Minsk? Even better!

—with additional reporting by Nancy A. Youssef