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Russia Getting Ready To Escalate In Ukraine?

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It’s been just over a week since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the sky over eastern Ukraine, most likely by a surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russian separatists who may have had direct or indirect assistance in the matter from Russia itself. In that time, fighting between the Ukrainian military and the separatists has continued, in some cases, taking place mere miles away from the site of the wreckage of Flight 17 and placing the international teams sent in to investigate the matter in danger. The skies above the region remain unsafe as well, with two Ukrainian fighters being shot down on the same day earlier this week. Across the border, meanwhile, there are signs that Russia, which has been largely silent outside of its rather absurd propaganda campaign, may be seeking to escalate the situation to an alarming degree.

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr, for example, reports that American officials are detecting signs that Russia is preparing to move heavier weapons into eastern Ukraine:

Russia is preparing the transfer of more powerful weaponry into Ukraine, and it could happen at any time, a Pentagon spokesman said Friday, citing the latest U.S. intelligence.

The transfer could be “imminent,” the spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, told reporters. It’s believed the weaponry will be driven into Ukraine “potentially today,” he said, but it is not clear if Russian troops will be involved.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also warned of the possibility Thursday, telling reporters, “We have new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to the separatist forces in Ukraine and have evidence that Russia is firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainian military positions.”

The United States has imagery showing weaponry, with burn marks in the grass, on the Russian side of the border, indicating that artillery was fired, a U.S. official tells CNN. The images remain classified and were not shared with CNN.

The Russian military has more powerful rocket launcher systems than the ones that have been sent across the border in the past. Intelligence indicates just under a dozen systems may be part of this latest shipment, according to a U.S. official.

Everything Russia is doing, Warren said, is “unquestionably an escalation.”

The New York Times, meanwhile, reports that there has been increased shelling of Ukrainian positions from inside Russia in response to military setbacks suffered by the separatists:

KIEV, Ukraine — Responding to strong advances by the Ukrainian military against separatist insurgents in the week since the downing of a passenger jet, Russia has stepped up its direct involvement in the hostilities in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian and American officials say, unleashing artillery attacks on Ukrainian positions from Russian territory and amassing heavy weapons along the border that Kiev and its allies fear could be pushed across to reinforce the rebels and prolong the fighting.

American officials, citing military intelligence, including satellite images, warned that Russia appeared to be preparing to arm the rebels with more high-powered weaponry — including tanks and armored vehicles — than it had previously supplied. In Kiev, a military spokesman said that Ukrainian troops were coming under increased fire from the Russian side of the border and that the Ukrainian military had recently shot down three Russian surveillance drones. One was used to target a Ukrainian base near the town of Amvrosiivka, which then quickly came under heavy rocket attack, the spokesman said.

The military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said on Friday that Ukrainian forces were engaged in particularly heavy fighting near a border crossing at Chervona Zorya, not far from where two Ukrainian fighter jets were downed on Wednesday in what Ukrainian officials said was a missile attack from the Russian side of the border.

“We have facts of shelling of Ukrainian positions from the territory of Russian Federation,” Mr. Lysenko said at a briefing in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. “We have facts on the violation of air border between Ukraine and Russia.”

A NATO military officer, who asked not to be named because the comments were about sensitive intelligence matters, said by telephone, “The United States has shared intelligence information with NATO today regarding strikes that are occurring from within Russian territory firing into Ukraine territory.”

Mr. Lysenko said some Russian soldiers had surrendered to Ukrainian forces. “We have information about weapons and mercenaries, who have respective skills for warfare, who have been passing over from the territory of Russian Federation,” he said.

Russia has repeatedly denied that its forces are involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine and that it is supplying rebels with weapons and other equipment, despite a substantial body of evidence collected by Ukraine and its allies. Ukraine and the United States have also said the missile that destroyed the passenger jet, a Boeing 777 flying as Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, was fired from rebel territory using a system supplied by Russia.

Ukrainian officials say their forces in recent days have recaptured at least 10 towns, shrinking the amount of territory under rebel control in the embattled regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and gaining substantial advantage, including over some of the main highways in the region. Officials have said they believe that they could defeat the rebels within three weeks, if there is no further intervention by Russia, either in the form of new vehicles and weapons or — less likely — a direct invasion by Russian forces.

To date, Russia has acted indirectly in eastern Ukraine, providing the separatists with weapons and apparently some assistance from special forces and intelligence officers, but not directly getting involved itself. There were Russian forces sitting close to the border with Ukraine for weeks earlier this summer, for example, and while that raised many concerns about cross-border incursions if not an outright invasion, no such event occurred and the forces were mostly withdrawn. Now, though, they seem to have returned and the Russian military seems to be getting much more directly involved than it had been in the past. The Ukrainian transport plane that was shot down just days before Flight 17 was, at least according to initial Pentagon analysis, shot down by a missile fired from the Russian side of the border; and, there is at least some evidence that the same may have been true in the case of the two fighter jets shot down earlier this week. Now we have the reports of Russians shelling Ukrainian positions from across the border.

Even if they aren’t crossing the border, the Russians clearly seem intent on becoming much more directly involved in the fight between Kiev and the separatists than they have in the past. In no small part, of course, this is due to the fact that the Russian separatists seem to be being thrown back on their heels militarily. After an initial period prior to the elections in May when the government in Kiev seemed to be on the retreat in the east, the Ukrianian military has done a very good job over the past six weeks of scoring significant victories against the rebels, expelling them from one city and slowly but surely gaining back territory that they had taken control over. The fact that the Russians are intervening at this point would seem to be a good indication that the situation on the ground is coming to a head, perhaps even to a point where the separatists would suffer even more significant defeats that could lead to their defeat. The Russians obviously don’t want that to happen, but the question is how high a price they are willing to pay to keep the insurgency alive.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. TPF says:

    “The Russians obviously don’t want that to happen, but the question is how high a price they are willing to pay to keep the insurgency alive”

    I would guess the Russian are willing to price a higher price than us. And a much higher price than the Europeans..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  2. Eric Florack says:

    @TPF: Agreement.
    More, they knew that going in, else they wouldn’t have started.

    How did they know?
    Hell, conservatives like Sarahalin predicted it years ago, to the derision of the Omabai, and the Clintonistas. And, the GOP leadership as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 11

  3. rudderpedals says:

    France just delivered one amphibious assault ship (to be christened “Odessa”)(not) to Russia and promised to deliver the second one as contracted. Britain yesterday reaffirmed an impending arms sale. Browsing the interwebs brings up other examples of Western European indifference.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  4. MR X says:

    @TPF:

    Russians aren’t backing down. If the world did nothing in Syria, then how the hell is possible they would do anything to Russia? Russians are some of the toughest people in the world. Napoleon and Hitler found that out the hard way.

    btw, what the hell happened to media coverage of ISIS. Those animals are mutilating womens genitals now and just destroyed the tomb of Jonah. IT seems almost inexplicable at this point that an army of so few has so much power and has not been stopped yet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  5. humanoid.panda says:

    @MR X: Russians are so tough in fact that they totally annihilated the West in the Cold War and are now ruling all of Western Europe with an iron fist and their empire was totally not blown to smithereens.
    Seriously, yes, Russians are pretty good at defensive war, but they are not superhumans, and the price Russians society is willing to pay for Ukraine (at least until such point the US decides to establish military bases there) is not that high at all. There is a reason why Putin is very careful about not openly supporting the insurgents.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  6. MR X says:

    @humanoid.panda:

    This is an old school proxy war by Putin. you remember the Cold War, right?? You my also remember the that the “80s called and they want their foreign policy back” how about I’ll have more flexibility after I’m elected….. Putin is still laughing…

    http://img.timeinc.net/time/pr/magcovers/8414.jpg

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  7. Ben Wolf says:

    How many times have U.S. officials been utterly wrong or just made something up regarding what another party in the world is up to? If we wrote out a list we’d be here all weekend.

    Accusations are not evidence.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  8. Grewgills says:

    @MR X:

    If the world did nothing in Syria, then how the hell is possible they would do anything to Russia?

    non sequitur

    Russians are some of the toughest people in the world. Napoleon and Hitler found that out the hard way.

    Napoleon and Hitler lost to the Russian winter, not Russian soldiers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  9. Grewgills says:

    @Ben Wolf:
    We can always count on you for Putin apologetics. Is there anything he can do that won’t prompt a response from you condemning US actions and defending Russian actions?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  10. Humanoid.panda says:

    @Grewgills: Russian armies did not fall apart after massive defeats and during long retreats. This endurance was at Least as important as winter in beating hitler and Napoleon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. Grewgills says:

    @Humanoid.panda:
    The Nazis were rolling the Russians back until the weather turned. We couldn’t have won the war without them, but this myth of superior Russian toughness is just that, a myth. They were and are no tougher than the Americans, the British, or any number of other peoples. This mythologizing doesn’t serve us well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Stonetools says:

    To make things even more complex, western Ukraine was part of Poland until World War2. Stalin’s USSR took it when he invaded Poland from the east in September 1939 in combination with Hitler invading from the west. Ukraine to a certain extent is no more a nation than Iraq, and that particular national project is not going all that well either.
    Maybe we should just let Russia take east Ukraine and Poland take west Ukraine. The end result would be that a German-led EU gets west Ukraine-which is sort of what was contemplated by the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk concluded between Germany and Russia in 1917.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. dazedandconfused says:

    @Grewgills:

    Yes, just bad luck. They had no reason to suspect Russian winters might be cold.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Stonetools says:

    @Stonetools:
    Uh, posted on the wrong thread. Let. Me try again on the new thread.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. humanoid.panda says:

    @Grewgills: If you read the historiography, you will find that the Germans were complaining that even while they were rolling the Russians, Russian resistance slowed them down and depleted their resources and manpower to the extent some German generals thought the war was lost by August 1941.

    The idea that the Russians are superhuman soldiers is a myth, but so is the notion that they are a bunch of idiots rescued by General Winter and the mistakes of their opponents over and over again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. humanoid.panda says:

    @Stonetools: Well, if you really want to complicate things, there is no way the Poles would be interested in this deal, for two reasons
    A) At the moment, they are close Ukrainian allies, as they want Ukraine, not them, to be the European buffer state viz. the Russians.
    B) After the war, the Ukrainians who lived in current day Eastern Poland were moved to current day Ukraine, while the Poles who lived in Western Ukraine were moved to Western Poland (that was ‘cleared’ from the Germans who lived there). No one, but no one in Europe wants to open that can of worms.

    Beyond this, those partition plans ignore the fact that outside Crimea, the vast majority of the people in Eastern Ukraine have no interest in secession; At most, the majority there want a loosely federated Ukraine.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0