When Russian tanks used to roll into a foreign country, it was known as an invasion. Today it’s known as a “failure by Russia to de-escalate [a] situation.” That was State Department spokesperson Marie Harf’s comment on widespread reports, since corroborated by NATO, that three T-64 tanks, along with multiple rocket launchers and armored personnel carriers (APCs), entered east Ukraine from Russia last week. And such are the gifts of diplomatic nicety still being bestowed upon Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States continues to treat him as a recalcitrant child at reform school rather than as a lying authoritarian who still seeks to partition or balkanize Ukraine. If only he’d behave himself…
Contrary to press claims that Putin has wound down his direct and indirect interference in east Ukraine —claims which were mostly based on his seeming acceptance of Petro Poroshenko’s election as Ukraine’s president, and his brief one-on-one conversations with Poroshenko and President Obama during the D-Day anniversary in France last week —the opposite is the case. As the West has been busy rediscovering a country called Iraq, the Kremlin has been not-so-quietly increasing its support for militants seeking to carve out satrapies in Donetsk and Lugansk. In fact, it has also cut off Ukraine’s gas supply and is now moving troops back to the Ukrainian border, a fortnight or so after belatedly withdrawing them.
For the last several weeks, my team at The Interpreter, a Russian news and analysis website, have been documenting mounting evidence of what we’ve termed Russia’s “remote controlled war” in east Ukraine. Typically, this has been a war defined by the military doctrine of maskirovka, which traffics in concealment, plausible deniability, and carefully leaked or disseminated disinformation (dezinformatsiya) designed to both confuse the enemy and deter him from predicting or responding to one’s next move. Nevertheless, every once and a while, the mask slips.
That appeared to happen on June 12, when Ukraine’s government claimed that three Russian T-64 battle tanks and several armored vehicles entered Ukraine from the Dovzhanskyy border crossing, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists calling themselves the “People’s Republic of Lugansk.” Video and photographic evidence of the tanks was circulated (and debated) online, with questions as to what model they were: T-72 or T-64 bandied about. What didn’t seem to be in dispute was their locations—they were spotted in Snizhne, a city in the Donetsk oblast, and then again in Makiivka, an industrial city in the same oblast about 40 miles to the west of Snizhne. According to NATO, which released satellite imagery to corroborate Kiev’s allegations, “The tanks do not bear markings or camouflage paint like those used by the Ukrainian military. In fact, they do not have markings at all, which is reminiscent of tactics used by Russian elements that were involved in destabilizing Crimea.” NATO concluded that the tanks and APCs “raise significant questions concerning Russia’s role in facilitating instability in eastern Ukraine and its involvement in the movement of military equipment from Russian territory into Ukraine.”
The reason, though, that people doubt this actually happened is that Russia has covered its tracks, so to speak. The only outlet to report that these were in fact captured Ukrainian tanks being driven around by separatists was a pro-Putin Russian news portal, politikus.ru, known for churning out disinformation. It published an item on June 9, three full days before the tanks were spotted in Ukraine, suggesting that T-64s had been captured from the Ukrainian military. That article relied exclusively on “reports from social networks” (yet my team could find none) and was the only one of its kind to appear in either the Russian or Ukrainian media.
But the report was suspect. For starters, Kiev never acknowledged the capture of any of its tanks, and it’s usually the first to go public about the commandeering of weapons, military bases or other heavy equipment because such acts legitimate its ongoing “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) against the separatists. And while it’s true that T-64s are still active in Ukraine’s military, and that they’ve been decommissioned by Russia’s, Russia still stores plenty of T-64s for reserve purposes. And NATO’s proffered satellite imagery showed, as of June 11, 10 main battle tanks stationed across the border at Donetsk in Rostov-on-Don. Three of these were parked, four were in a training area, and three more were “loaded heavy equipment transport trucks that are normally used to move tanks, likely indicating imminent movement by road,” as NATO’s Allied Command Operations found. And here it’s also worth bearing in mind that these tanks arrived after Russia began withdrawing forces from the Ukrainian border in late May—a withdrawal which Putin claimed to have ordered twice before it actually occurred.
So far, Russia’s only counterclaim about military vehicles being used against Kiev’s armed forces was to suggest that a Ukrainian BMP—an amphibious infantry fighting vehicle—had crossed into Russian territory and was abandoned there. This is a curious allegation given that it doesn’t begin to explain how Russia’s Border Control, which is controlled by its domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, allowed a Ukrainian APC to slip past its side of the border unhindered. The State Department further confirmed that “no Ukrainian tank units have been operating” where the T-64s were seen, adding, “[w]e are confident that these tanks came from Russia.” Meanwhile, Denis Pushilin, a Ukrainian national and self-declared “chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” went on Russian state TV and announced that, while his separatists did indeed have tanks in their arsenal, it would be “improper” to disclose where they came from. Well, quite.
Pushilin, as it happens, is currently visiting Moscow along with Aleksandr Boroday, the “prime minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic. BBC journalist Daniel Sanford first noticed Pushilin’s presence in the Russian capital on June 11 as the separatist was meeting with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the racist head of the racist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), which is a near-perfect misnomer because it is neither liberal, democratic nor even a “party” properly speaking, but rather a whole-cloth concoction of the KGB. Zhirinovsky had previously offered a free Volga car to “any soldier, officer or citizen who is the first to break through Kiev at some stage and plant a Russian flag on the Verkhovna Rada,” Ukraine’s parliament. In fact, the LDPR flag was recorded by the BBC flying above a building in a separatist training camp. The leader of that militia, Alexei Moskoy, even admitted that he’d just returned from “meetings with officials in Moscow.” But of course no one in Moscow has anything to do with the “little green men” trying to partition Ukraine.
Boroday is another interesting case. Unlike Pushilin, he’s actually a Russian citizen and the former editor of an ultra-nationalist newspaper in Russia called Zavtra (Tomorrow), to which he still contributes. Ideologically promiscuous or consistent, depending on taste, Boroday has enjoyed the company of Stalinists, anti-Semites, and chauvinist venture-capitalist billionaires. Boroday also featured bizarrely in the one piece of independent Russian journalism that did appear to confirm the presence of Russian foreign fighters in the separatist’s midst. In late May, he invited reporters affiliated with Ekho Moskvy radio station (which gained a pro-Putin general manager last February) to embed with a convoy of trucks transporting Russian bodies, known as “Cargo 200,” back from Ukraine. The exact nature of the corpses’ ties to the Russian government is murky, and Ekho Moskvy’s allegation that one body belonged to an FSB agent, the supposed evidence for which —a tribute to the man in a VKontakte support group for veterans called “No One is Forgotten, No One Forgets”—was later found to be absent. It is unclear how the mention crept in. But what does seem clear is that Boroday and his higher-ups no longer feel the need to present the crisis in Ukraine as a strictly internal matter. On June 17, Boroday addressed a meeting with members of the Russian Federation Council in which he reportedly thanked Russia for the “steady flow of volunteers coming from Russia who fight for the interests of people of Donbass.”
Some of those “volunteers” are readily identifiable now. In May, the Vostok (“East”) Battalion, another separatist militia, raided and temporarily seized the headquarters of the DPR. Here was one pro-Russian faction looking to undermine another—an indication, perhaps, that Moscow was growing impatient with the amateur performance of its original marionettes and so opted for more battle-hardened “professionals” to keep the show going. Indeed, as Mark Galeotti, a specialist on Russia’s security services, has noted, the Vostok Battalion was also the name for a GRU-run Spetsnaz battalion in the Russian military which was deployed to the restive Caucasus. It was disbanded in 2008 owing to a dispute between its commander and the mercurial (and insane) Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s handpicked “president” of Chechnya.
Whether or not the Vostok Battalion has been reconstituted in its original form matters less than what it is obviously up to in Donetsk. According to the Caucasian Knot website, residents in Chechnya have confirmed the arrival of additional “Cargo 200” from Ukraine’s frontlines. One resident said: “When they say there are no Chechens there, it’s a bare-faced lie. Over the last two weeks, former soldiers from the Zapad [West] and Vostok Spetsnaz battalions, which came under GRU command, have been sent there. There are also some sorts of volunteers from other organizations.”It goes without saying that Kadyrov could not deploy Chechen fighters to Ukraine without the say-so of his paymaster and capo di tutti capi in the Kremlin.
What Russia chooses not to talk about with respect to Ukraine is almost as telling as what it chooses to bang on about. On June 13, separatists shot down an IL-76 military transport plane, which was carrying troops, munitions and ammunition over Lugansk, claiming that the plane had “violated” the airspace of the “People’s Republic of Lugansk,” yet another entity which exists solely in the minds of those calling it that. All 49 people on board the transport plane were killed, making this the single deadliest incident in the four-month-long conflict. Dmitry Tymchuk, a former Ukrainian soldier and Defense Ministry official who runs a highly regarded military blog, noted that “three 9P3901 launching pipes from the MANPAD [man-portal air defense system] 9K38 Igla were found near the Lugansk Airport, which reportedly downed the ATO forces’ IL-76.” And while it’s certainly possible that the MANPAD used for this attack was pilfered from a Ukrainian military installation (Igla systems were said to have been taken from two caches in Lvov in March), it’s also possible that it came from Russia, as the 9K38 Igla is in use by both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries. However, according to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, at least one consignment of Igla MANPADs, recently confiscated by Ukrainian authorities from separatists in Donetsk, can be traced to “an Air Defense base of the Russian armed forces.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry, it should be known, issued no statement on the downing of the IL-76. Instead, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who gave an interview a day later, placed all the blame for ongoing violence in east Ukraine on the shoulders of the Ukrainians. “Rather than extending a hand to these people, inviting them to the negotiating table and agreeing how to continue to live in the country all together, the military operation continues,” Lavrov said on Russian state TV. (One need only contrast this curious elision with what Lavrov would have said had terrorists shot down a Russian IL-76 in the skies over Dagestan.)
As it happens, Lavrov’s ministry was incredibly exercised about a non-lethal incident in Kiev: a protest that erupted outside the Russian embassy on June 14, a day after the IL-76’s downing. Diplomatic cars were overturned, windows were smashed, and the embassy walls were hit with eggs, stones and paint bottles as demonstrators shouted slogans such as “Hands off Ukraine!” and “Russia is a killer!” Moscow accused the Ukrainian police of not stopping the melee and of committing a “grave violation of Ukraine’s international obligations.” Aleksei Pushkov, the head of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, went so far as to demand the sacking of Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, who attended the protest and in fact did seek to lower its temperature. Deschytsia’s offense? He referred to Vladimir Putin as a “dickhead.” The exact term he used, “Putin khylo,” is now common at Ukrainian demonstrations and soccer matches where its connotation is more playful than insulting, as evidenced by the “la la la la” refrain which usually follows it. What’s 49 dead Ukrainians as against a teasing epithet? (Poroshenko proposed that Deshchystia be replaced with Ukraine’s current ambassador to Germany, Pavel Klimkin, though it seems likely this decision was taken before the embassy incident.)
Finally, despite its earlier pullback of forces from the Ukrainian border, there are indications that Russia has begun mobilizing troops and materiel again. This video purportedly shows a Russian military convoy in Rostov en route to the southeast region of Ukraine. And this one, which The Interpreter was able to geolocate, shows another column in Novoshakhtinsk, a mining city in Rostov. The Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainska Pravda reported June 16: “In just the last 24 hours, despite statements from President Putin, we have evidence that the Russian armed forces have relocated detachments of the 76th Pskov Air Assault Division to points near the border with Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, Andriy Parubiy, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, told reporters at a press conference on June 16: “The numerical strength of the Russian armed forces on the Ukrainian border is estimated at 16,000 troops, up to 22,000 in Crimea, and up to [3,500] in Transnistria,” the Russian-controlled breakaway region of Moldova. Parubiy claims that “more than half”of the militants are Russians, while the rest are locals who were forcibly conscripted into the separatist ranks or deployed around cities as human shields. Accordingly, Ukraine has closed its borders with both Russia and Transnistria. And the State Department said in a statement on June 17: “We’ve seen reports on renewed Russian troops movement and are closely monitoring this situation.”
It’s no coincidence that Russian forces are moving back to the border just as Ukraine appears to be making progress in the war. Kiev retook Mariupol on June 13; it’s poised to retake Lugansk at any moment. So naturally, three days later, Russia’s state-oil gas company Gazprom, after weeks of intense negotiations with Kiev, cut off the gas supply into Ukraine completely, citing its in-arrears status on payments for prior shipments. Then a gas pipeline in the Poltava region of Ukraine was suddenly blown up by unknown assailants.
Even still, Poroshenko seems wedded to a political settlement. He spoke to Putin on June 17 and came away offering a “unilateral cease-fire.” The very fact that Putin is able to discuss such a moratorium while still insisting that he’s a mere spectator to the war next door is the clearest indication yet that even the cleverest maskirovka has a sell-by date. Those who ever believed that Putin “blinked” because of U.S. and E.U. sanctions, or that an “isolated” Russia was winding down its campaign to dismember or destabilize Ukraine, were duped. That was the point all along.