Invasion by any other name
The suspicion that Russia’s ‘humanitarian convoy’ was being used to divert attention from other activities was probably confirmed on Aug 23. Western leaders concentrated only on that undoubted violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty while ignoring NATO reports of direct Russian military incursions
During her visit to Kyiv on Aug 23, German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that a ‘diplomatic solution’ must be found and a bilateral ceasefire agreed. Whether by accident or design the Kremlin decided on the eve of her visit to breach international law by sending its ‘humanitarian convoy’ trucks into Ukraine without permission. This provided a marvelous pretext for stern and largely painless warnings which conveniently mentioned only the white trucks, not the Russian military equipment and personnel NATO has confirmed are now on Ukrainian territory.
There were thus only warnings and the same old focus on a bilateral ceasefire. This, according to Reuters journalists, is to prevent Russian president Vladimir Putin “getting mad”, or causing a “backlash”.
Such a ceasefire would leave the Kremlin-backed and armed militants undefeated and free to regroup. They would now be under the control of a number of experienced former top officials from the pro-Russian Transnistria unrecognized republic, particularly ex-security chief Vladimir Antufeyev. According to Chatham House analyst James Sherr, “By designating General Antufeyev, the master architect of ‘frozen conflicts’, as his de facto plenipotentiary in Donetsk, Putin has provided the clearest indication yet that he has no intention of allowing the region to revert to Kyiv’s control.”
The German chancellor’s intentions remain unclear, as do the chances for the kind of French-German diplomacy which catastrophically failed on Aug 18. It is disturbing however, that just hours before the visit was to begin, extracts were released of an interview given by vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel to Welt am Sonntag. The full interview will only be available on Sunday, however the German vice chancellor appears to have stated that ‘the only solution’ for Ukraine is a “sensible form of federalization”.
This is precisely what Russia has been demanding for Ukraine over recent months. It is a position Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko countered in his inauguration speech where he stated that Ukraine will remain a unitary state. There is no evidence from public opinion surveys of major support within Ukraine for federalization and many of the Russian-speakers whom Gabriel spoke of are fully in support of Ukrainian unity. Specialists from, for example, the authoritative Razumkov Centre have called it an artificial issue which Russia is using to gain control over parts of Ukraine.
Were the deputy leader of an EU country to state publicly that "the only solution" for the United Kingdom was devolution, there would be a diplomatic scandal. The situation here is undoubtedly different, however since Gabriel is putting forward the position lobbied by Russia, it would be very helpful for Germany to explain whose views the vice chancellor was expressing.
With respect to possible efforts to achieve a ceasefire, albeit bilateral, it is difficult to doubt that any agreement will be breached, if not openly, then through continued illicit efforts to destabilize Ukraine.
Most importantly, Russia’s leader will have seen no serious response to overt military aggression and will draw his conclusions.
It is not surprising that renowned Polish intellectual Adam Michnik focused on the situation around Ukraine in his address to a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the Baltic Chain of Freedom, when over two million people formed a human chain spanning the three Baltic republics, then still under Soviet rule.
Michnik told the conference that Ukraine is now fighting for freedom for all of Europe. He criticized countries like France and Germany for naivety in treating Moscow as a predictable partner with whom it’s possible to reach agreement. “This is while the head of Russian diplomacy Sergei Lavrov negotiates on the principle: “what’s mine is mine, and we can discuss what is yours”. We must not accept this logic, he stressed.
Poland and Lithuania were the first two countries to be faced with Russian bans which looked suspiciously like punishment for their support for Ukraine’s European integration aspirations and EuroMaidan.
In February this year, Poland was a major player in negotiations with the then President Viktor Yanukovych, and it is disturbing that it has so ostentatiously been pushed out of any talks on the situation in eastern Ukraine.
Poland and the Baltic States have every reason to be concerned about Russian aggression and enough bad memories of western betrayal to make them suspicious of blithe assurances that they can count on NATO.
If directly attacked, they probably could expect NATO to react. The Kremlin is currently testing how far it can go without triggering excessively painful response from the West. It has unfortunately found little indication of any red line that can’t be crossed.
Invasion of eastern Ukraine was supposed to be one such red line. Interpretation of ‘invasion’ has proven dangerously elastic. Even reports from two UK correspondents who saw Russian military trucks crossing the border into Ukraine has not stopped western information agencies from continuing to report such engagement as “claimed” by the Kyiv government.
Except, that is, in Poland where such movements have been shown on television for several days. The following are just some examples.
The first footage was filmed by TVN 24’s correspondent in the Rostov oblast in Russia, not far from the border with Ukraine, and shows Russian armed personnel carriers, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons turning onto a road leading to the border. Artyleria, wozy opancerzone i broń przeciwlotnicza. Ruchy Rosjan przed kamerą TVN24 (4 clips)
Journalist Wojciech Bojanowski explains that the Ukrainian authorities assert that Russia is providing the militants with heavy military equipment via that road, and that Russia says that there is no proof.
The journalist acknowledges that there are no photos of the actual crossing, however there is a steady flow of vehicles to the border and shots taken by the militants where you can see, for example, a BTR-80a transporter which the Ukrainian military do not have.
The next day, Aug 19 the same journalist reports that the road leading to the border has been blocked since morning by an endless stream of Russian tanks carrying equipment, etc.
On Friday NATO reported that the Russian military has moved artillery units manned by Russian personnel inside Ukrainian territory and has been using them to fire at Ukrainian forces.
If this red line proves flexible, it will not only be Ukraine that has serious grounds for concern. Invasion by any other name remains an invasion. So does appeasement.