Russia Getting Ready To Escalate In Ukraine?
Things are getting serious in eastern Ukraine.
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.