On Tuesday, after a long phone conversation, the Ukrainian and Russian presidents agreed to work together to control the precarious situation on their mutual border. Yet without waiting for results, the Ukrainian military began an operation with the main goal of a “complete sealing of the border” so separatists can no longer receive military support from the Kremlin.
For Kiev, it seemed especially important to stop Russian tanks from crossing into eastern Ukraine to join the rebel forces. Pro-Russian rebels have been seen operating a dozen or so tanks in one of the eastern towns, Slovyansk. Among the tanks were “vehicles that had crossed the border with Russian Federation” through the Izvarino and Krasnopartizansk border crossing points, Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said Tuesday.
The Kremlin has been ardently denying any deployment of Russian tanks, insisting that tanks made in Russia, as well as Kalashnikov rifles, could just as easily be found anywhere in the world. Indeed, until recently, at least one of the tanks operating in eastern Ukraine was a museum piece—displayed on a pedestal on a central square. But separatists, using anything from unarmed protesters to anti-aircraft weaponry to confront the Ukrainian army, figured out a way to restart the old machine. Rusty and squeaky, in need of maintenance and oil, the tank had not lost its destructive skills. On Monday, the former monument in the town of Konstantinovka, called the “Iosif Stalin” tank, of World War II vintage, attacked a Ukrainian base, killing three Ukrainian soldiers and injuring three more.
With the war showing no signs of fading away, Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko—a former owner of a chocolate company—felt compelled to don a military uniform in public. Meanwhile, during a Tuesday meeting with diplomats in Moscow, Putin declared that the war and its consequences were now solely Poroshenko’s responsibility. “Until now Petr Alekseevich did not have any direct relation to military actions. Now he personally took full responsibility, not only militarily but politically, which is much more important,” Putin said, blaming Poroshenko for commanding the resumption of military action after a failed ceasefire. Once again, Putin criticized the West for breaking international agreements and explained why Russia chose to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine “who feel themselves a part of the Russian world.” He promised to use all means at his disposal to defend Russians. Meanwhile, European Union leaders continued to threaten Russia with more sanctions, if the crisis deepened.
As fighting continues in the east, including within the city of Donetsk, Ukrainian authorities understand that a conventional Russia invasion remains possible, which would represent an escalation of the covert tactics now in play between the Russian army and local militants. Andiy Parubiy, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, said on the television show Freedom of Speech: “We understand that it can happen at any monument, on any night.” Despite Tuesday’s presidential phone call to discuss de-escalation, Ukrainian authorities prepared for a more serious military operation to re-enforce the troops fighting in Luhansk region, snug against the Russian border. It would create new checkpoints outside the city of Luhansk; replace some of the commanders, and create sniper units among border patrol troops, Parubiy said.
Air support, the only real help Ukrainian border troops have received in the last couple months, is growing more difficult. On Tuesday, witnesses reported on social media seeing a Ukrainian airplane on fire in the early evening. The plane crashed, they said, near a coal mine. Earlier on Tuesday morning, rebels of the self-proclaimed Luhansk Republic reported bringing down two Ukrainian jets, RIA Novosti reported. It was not the first time pro-Russian rebels had downed military jets in the Luhansk region, using infrared guided missiles the United States government has said were supplied by Russia. On June 14, rebels shot down a Ukrainian transport jet carrying military equipment, killing all 49 people on board, including soldiers originally drafted from Donetsk and Luhansk.