August 28, 2014 6:30 pm

Russia’s offensive seen as tactic to freeze conflict in Ukraine

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The world has nervously awaited a potential Russian assault on eastern Ukraine throughout August. By Thursday, it seemed under way – not as a full-blown, overt attack but as a creeping, “stealth”, offensive.

The direct involvement of Russian troops and heavy weapons, with Nato estimating that more than 1,000 Russians were already inside Ukraine, is a perilous escalation of the four-month-old insurgency.

It raises the prospect of tougher western sanctions against Russia and of widening the conflict.

East Ukraine map

Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, said Ukraine had become “Europe’s most serious security crisis over the past decades”.

It is also likely to increase calls, notably from US foreign policy hawks, for the west to supply Ukraine’s army with advanced weaponry – though some analysts warn that this could be dangerously destabilising.

While some political leaders were using the word, invasion, many Russian and western analysts agreed that Russia’s steps did not, yet, constitute one. But the possibility of it becoming an invasion could not be ruled out.

“This is still relatively low-key,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst and columnist with the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

“The Russian air force has not been in action, the number of troops is a couple of thousand . . . This is one step away from an ultimate escalation.”

Military officials and analysts agreed on Russian president Vladimir Putin’s strategic objective.

“Russia’s ultimate aim is to alleviate pressure on separatist fighters, [in order] to ‘freeze’ this conflict,” said Dutch Brigadier General Nico Tak, commander of Nato’s crisis operations centre.

As well as its operations on the ground, Gen Tak alleged that Russia was moving air defence systems, artillery, tanks and armoured personnel carriers to separatists in eastern Ukraine.

“Freezing” the conflict means leaving large chunks of eastern Ukraine in control of the Russia backed rebels, while forcing Kiev to call a ceasefire and hold talks with Moscow, potentially for years.

That would turn Ukraine’s industrial heartland, or Donbass, into something like Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova, or Abkhazia and South Ossetia, occupied by Russia since its 2008 war with Georgia. It would also achieve Russia’s central goal of thwarting any chance of Ukraine, under its new, pro-western leadership, joining Nato.

In fact, after attempts to force Kiev to negotiate in June were rebuffed, Mr Putin has again been pushing for a ceasefire.

Russia’s military incursions this week coincided with Mr Putin’s first face to face meeting for two months with Petro Poroshenko, his Ukrainian counterpart, in Minsk.

Mr Poroshenko also came under pressure to compromise during a visit last weekend by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

To strengthen its hand, and preserve the chance of turning Donbass into a frozen conflict, Moscow must prevent pro-Russia separatists there being defeated. That had looked possible as Ukraine’s army made important gains.

Mr Felgenhauer said Russia’s direct military involvement, including opening a new front by the Sea of Azov near Crimea, aimed to restore the “balance” between the rebels and Ukrainian forces.

It also aimed to win back some territory rebels had lost, to ensure “Novorossiya” or “New Russia” – as the rebels and Moscow call separatist held regions – could be established as a viable entity.

In depth

Crisis in Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatist

Pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine have escalated the political turmoil that threatens to tear the country apart

Further reading

Mr Poroshenko is under acute political pressure not to compromise but to rout the rebels. Some Ukrainians have called for martial law to be imposed and a big increase in support for the military.

If Ukraine’s president and forces did not back down, Mr Felgenhauer warned, Russia might still launch a full-scale invasion.

“[Mr Putin] is ready to do whatever it takes to push the Ukrainians back and allow Novorossiya to be established,” he said.

Some people familiar with Kremlin thinking suggested Moscow might be calculating that since Washington’s hands were full with the Middle East, the US reaction would be muted.

But with western sanctions apparently having done little to sap Mr Putin’s resolve, calls for a more robust approach are set to intensify, internationally and within Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers heading to the southeast on Thursday said Russian forces on the ground were nothing new.

“We have been facing Russian soldiers in combat for months,” said Volodya, returning by train to the front line after a one-week break. “They have been shooting and shelling us from our land.

“If our leadership in Kiev and the west is afraid to call this a Russian invasion then step aside and let someone with some basic level of courage and leadership take charge,” he added.

“At least give us some proper arms and support to have a fighting chance.”

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