In case there was still any doubt about the true nature of the war in Ukraine’s eastern regions, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced to the press this afternoon that several Russian tanks had crossed the border near the town of Snizhne (Donetsk Oblast). Amateur video footage of T-90 tanks has now been broadcast on all local newscasts, and has again catapulted the Ukrainian “crisis” to top story status on international networks. According to latest reports (10 pm), one tank was disabled during a battle with Ukrainian forces near the border, but three others have been filmed driving through Makiyivka en route to Donetsk, together with two trucks full of heavily armed men.
The Ukrainian armed forces do not possess T-90 tanks – this modernized version of the Soviet-era T-72 is deployed only in Russia.
Until today, the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern regions had involved mercenaries armed with Russian-supplied weaponry – including the ultra-modern “Stinger”-style missile that last week shot down a Ukrainian military transport aircraft at an altitude of over 4000 meters (approx. 12000 ft.). But tanks are not supplied to mercenaries. This type of equipment is always manned by army personnel.
It is safe to say that Russian troops (regulars – not hired mercenaries) have now invaded territorial Ukraine. This act has nothing to do with local separatism (or even state-sponsored terrorism): Russia has invaded the sovereign territory of Ukraine. This cannot be interpreted as anything other than an act of war.
Much has been made of President Poroshenko’s “peace plan”. On Saturday, during his inaugural address, the President made clear that his first priority was to end the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern regions, and to simultaneously strengthen the country’s armed forces (essentially destroyed by years of central government neglect and internal corruption). During the past few days, details of the Poroshenko plan have been scarce, but EU officials have offered encouraging comments, and secretive meetings with Russian ambassador Zurabov and Kremlin officials have been held in the Presidential Administration building. In the meantime, media attention has been diverted from these talks by Russia’s increasingly vocal demands that Ukraine pay its gas debt (amounting to almost $2 billion USD) immediately – i.e. before resuming talks on purchase and transit prices. Furthermore, it would seem that the Kremlin is counting on global attention being diverted by the World Cup Final in Brazil (opening ceremony was today), while local Ukrainians rest for a while after a grueling 6 months of emotional and physical / economic and political turmoil.
But if Putin was counting on activist fatigue, he miscalculated. Today, approximately 30 Maidan self-defense force leaders picketed the head office of Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service demanding that Ukraine strengthen its patently porous eastern border. Since 2001, the Border Guard Service has been headed by Mykola Lytvyn – the brother of former two-time Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn (2002-2006 and 2008-2012), and a person that many of Ukraine’s erstwhile revolutionaries believe should resign due to incompetence and suspected corruption. It is notable that the head of the Border Guard Service is a Presidential appointee that does not require Parliamentary confirmation. Although only 5 days have passed since President Poroshenko’s inauguration, many Ukrainians are clearly becoming impatient with the pace of change adopted by Ukraine’s new administration.
Poroshenko apparently called Putin on the phone today to discuss ways to end the violence in the Donbas. However, for many in Kyiv, the situation has gone beyond words: even though he has officially been in office for less than a week, displeasure with the President’s perceived inaction is mounting in the capital. If Russian aggression is not countered soon, the benefit of the doubt that most Kyiv residents gave Poroshenko immediately after the May 25 vote, could evaporate very quickly. Whereas last week, I heard many calling for the dismantling of the tent city on Maidan immediately after the inauguration, this week, several of my friends and acquaintances have change their minds: a renewal of protests may yet be needed if the new President proves unworthy of the lofty title “Commander-in-Chief”.
Meanwhile, in the regions, the mood seems quieter. Last week, I spent 2 days teaching in Odesa. The 37 seminar participants were all top managers and owners of local businesses (generally mid-sized – employing 50-300 employees). Practically all were Russian speakers. At the end of the seminar, many thanked me for teaching in Ukrainian. In private conversations during breaks, several participants became quite emotional in their anti-Russian statements, claiming to have been apolitical until only very recently.
On May 2, Odesa lived through hell: 47 people are now confirmed to have died that day in clashes between pro-Russian armed thugs (backed by local police) who attacked a column of pro-Maidan demonstrators (backed by “ultra” football fans). Outnumbered by the angry pro-Ukrainian mob, the pro-Russian side retreated into the Trade Union Building which (apparently) was set on fire deliberately by the very leadership of the pro-Russia protest. The whole event is shrouded in a great deal of mystery and confusion, but according to those locals whom I spoke with, no one in Odesa doubts that the massacre was deliberately instigated by Russian covert operatives acting in alliance with Odesa’s corrupt local police. Apparently that day, the plan was to have the deaths of “peaceful pro-Russian protesters” blamed on the Kyiv government, and to thereby initiate a wave of separatism in this key southern Ukrainian port city. The plan backfired: Odesa chose peace, and its population chose Ukraine.
Having failed in covert action in the area he considers “New Russia”, Putin seems now to be resorting to more overt invasion. At the very least, today’s incursion by tanks can be equated to a violation of air space by military aircraft. At worst, it is the start of an invasion similar to that of Crimea, but with much larger logistical problems because the strategy will no longer benefit from surprise. It will be interesting to see how the Kremlin will try to spin today’s tank incident during upcoming days, but it seems Putin missed the adage of Marx according to which “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”
Indeed, President Poroshenko would do well to heed Marx’s warning also. The Ukrainian population expects their newly elected Commander-in-Chief to act quickly, decisively, and forcefully. Many are emboldened by the success of the Maidan, and are beginning to grumble that a repeat is not out of the question if the election of Poroshenko turns out to have been a mistake. Resumption of protest is unlikely before the end of the summer, but the President would do well to avoid testing the patience of Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin would do well to leave these descendants of the Zaporozhian Cossacks alone. History (recent and medieval) shows that Ukrainians are patient, and show surprising restraint – even with invaders. But when a line is crossed…
God help us!
Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD
About the author: http://dfc.ukma.edu.ua/coming-to-naukma/lectureres/mychailo-wynnyckyj
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