Russia has opened a second front in Ukraine on Thursday, and according to NATO and independent journalists have sent at least two columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers across the border. Russian troops, estimated at several thousand strong, poured into the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk to bolster pro-Russian separatists who have been beaten back in recent weeks by Ukrainian army forces. Another group of Russian troops moved from Crimea to the Ukrainian city of Novoazovsk, and then toward the port city of Mariupol.
While stopping short of labeling the most recent Russian incursion as an invasion, U.S. President Obama said that he would continue to apply sanctions in an effort to convince Russian President Putin to end the increasing stream of weapons and troops into Ukraine. Obama said that Russia has “deliberately and repeatedly violated” Ukrainian territorial sovereignty.
Even though Moscow continues to insist that no Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine, over the last week the Ukrainian army has taken active-duty Russian soldiers captive, and even the rebels themselves report the assistance of several thousand fresh troops sent by Moscow. NATO Brigadier General Niko Tak told the BBC that the security organization has seen not only a marked escalation in the number of Russian troops, but also a significant upgrade in the “level of sophistication” by Russian troops operating in Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials fear that the new troop invasion may be an effort by Russia to freeze the conflict, thus allowing Russia to send in “peacekeepers” and remain in those Ukrainian areas for decades to come. This would match a Russian pattern already employed in places like Moldova’s breakaway province of Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. Control of the south-east area of Ukraine would give Russia a land bridge between Russia and Crimea.
In a meeting of the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin ducked questions on Russia opening a second front in Ukraine, and instead attempted to divert questions by claiming that Kiev is waging war against Ukrainians. Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, told his parliament that NATO had conclusive proof of Russian troops pouring into Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a long-time friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, called Putin and demanded that he explain the presence of troops inside Ukraine.
Until recently, most Russians have remained silent on the Ukraine issue, especially as the Russian media has blanketed the airways with the message that Ukraine has been taken over by fascists. Attitudes in Russia could change however if Russian boys begin to come home in body bags. Earlier this week a group of mothers near the Russian city of Pskov demanded an explanation of how their sons died, and a group of journalists were threatened and ordered to leave when they attempted to interview family members. The BBC and other media reported that on Thursday a line of families assembled outside a base at Kostroma, a town north of Moscow: They had gathered there to identify and collect the remains of their sons for burial.
Russia is taking a risk in opening a second front in Ukraine. A defeat of Russian-backed forces would be a severe blow to Putin’s high approval ratings at home. Those numbers could tumble quickly were Russia to engage in an extended war, and if causalities continue to mount for families back home. Ukraine and Russia have common roots dating back to the Kyivan Rus, and most Russians have ethnic Ukrainian relatives, so an outright war could turn to be unpopular very quickly.
By Jim Hanemaayer