The news from the Donbas over the past several days has not been good. Until about a week ago, it seemed possible that Moscow was turning a blind eye to the infiltration of the Donbas by militants from Russia but was not directly involved in organizing it. That seems much less likely now. Given the evidence, it is hard to believe that Moscow is not complicit in facilitating the movement of fighters and military equipment across the border. There are now many videos on YouTube and elsewhere of trucks carrying militants in Ukrainian towns near the Russian border; local inhabitants tell reporters that the trucks are coming from Russia; militants tell reporters they have crossed the border directly into the Donbas; and pro-Russian forces in the east claim that the border is more-or-less open and that they regularly receive reinforcements from Russia.
Perhaps most alarming, however, is a post today on The Interpreter Magazine blog that translates an entry from the Facebook page of a Ukrainian journalist, Roman Bochkala. Bochkala claims to have seen 10 “Russian BTRs” in the woods in the village of Provalye outside the town of Sverdlovsk “which illegally, but easily, crossed the Ukrainian border during the night.” Sverdlovsk is about five miles from the border.
It is of course possible that the BTRs – the Russian acronym for “armored personnel carrier” – were actually controlled by Ukrainian forces. It is also possible that they were seized from the Ukrainian military, although I would be surprised if such a large force of BTRs had been captured and then concentrated near the border. It is also possible that Bochkala is simply not telling the truth. But if he is correct, and ten BTRs crossed the border from Russia on Tuesday night, that could only have happened with direct support from Russian security services. Russia is not a country where armored personnel carriers controlled by private militias simply drive down the street. That is true of military trucks carrying heavily armed militants as well.
Meanwhile, violence in the east is escalating. The Ukrainian military appears to be making some progress in its battle to take control of Slavyansk, but the fighting there has been intense, and many civilians have been fleeing the town. There has also been intense fighting in and around the city of Luhansk. Ukrainian government forces there appear to have suffered some serious defeats in the past 24 hours, having abandoned a National Guard and two Border Guard posts. The battle for a Border Guard post on the outskirts of Luhansk lasted some two days (and was more-or-less covered live by video posts on YouTube). Luhansk also witnessed an attack by a Ukrainian SU-25 on the separatists’ headquarters in the city that killed a number of civilians, including women, and that produced some horrific video images – images that could easily galvanize Russian public opinion and increase public pressure on Putin to intervene.
All this suggests that Kyiv is going to face a very difficult choice in the very near future – whether to press ahead and try to defeat the separatists militarily or to back off and try to contain the uprising to the area between Luhansk and Donetsk. If it presses ahead, and especially if it decides to use more airpower and artillery, there will be more civilian casualties and more horrible images. Kyiv will then lose even more popular support in the region, and it will cause even more damage to the region’s economic infrastructure. That in turn raises the question of what Kyiv will win if it manages to prevail (which is no sure thing). An alienated and angry population in a densely inhabited area dominated by heavy industry that is heavily reliant on trade with, and energy subsidies from, Russia may not be much of a prize. On the other hand, if Kyiv focuses on containing rather than suppressing the uprising, it seems very likely that the Kremlin will get what it has been pressing for, which is a Transnistria-type breakaway region in Ukraine’s east, albeit one that is much larger and even more volatile and dangerous.
A rock and a hard place to be sure.