Whatever endgame scenario Russia’s Vladimir Putin envisioned for Ukraine after the ouster of his man Viktor Yanukovych, it probably wasn’t a bizarre slow-motion invasion that a world preoccupied with the horrors of Islamic fascism would barely notice. Holding the Ukrainian military at bay with a huge Russian force parked on the border, while Russian-backed separatist rebels carved out a breakaway state, didn’t work, so the Russians just sort of moseyed across the border, exchanging occasional fire with the Ukrainians. Russian troops have been captured on Ukraine soil, prompting the Russian defense ministry to formally admit for the first time that it had troops on the wrong side of the border, supposedly by accident. The Ukranians responded that they would be happy to give any wayward Russian troops directions to get home.
Disquiet in Russia over the country’s ambiguous role is beginning to grow, as more circumstantial evidence of military activity emerges. An editorial in the respected Russian daily Vedomosti on Wednesday said Russian officials had a responsibility to explain whether or not the country was at war.
“Is Russia fighting in Ukraine, and if it is, on what basis? If it’s not, then who has been buried in these fresh graves, and who is being questioned by Ukrainian security services?”
There have also been rumors of “secret funerals for Russian servicemen apparently killed in action in Ukraine.” The cat’s probably out of the bag now, as the New York Times reports Russian forces have apparently routed the Ukrainians and captured the city of Novoazovsk:
Tanks, artillery and infantry have crossed from Russia into an unbreached part of eastern Ukraine in recent days, attacking Ukrainian forces and causing panic and wholesale retreat not only in this small border town but a wide swath of territory, in what Ukrainian and Western military officials are calling a stealth invasion.
The attacks outside this city and in an area to the north essentially have opened a new, third front in the war in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainianforces and pro-Russian separatists, along with the fighting outside the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Exhausted, filthy and dismayed, Ukrainian soldiers staggering out of Novoazovsk for safer territory said Tuesday that the forces coming from Russia had treated them like cannon fodder. As they spoke, tank shells whistled in from the east and exploded nearby.
Some of the retreating Ukrainian soldiers appeared unwilling to fight. The commander of their unit, part of the 9th Brigade from Vinnytsia, in western Ukraine, barked at the men to turn around, to no effect. “All right,” the commander said. “Anybody who refuses to fight, sit apart from the others.” Eleven men did, while the others returned to the city.
Others were in a full, chaotic retreat: a city bus load of them careened past headed west, purple curtains flapping through windows shot out by gunfire.
That all seems rather act-of-war-ish, doesn’t it? Other Russian units are reinforcing the separatists, who were on the ropes after the Ukrainian military got its act together. Among other telltale signs of Russian support, it has been noted the Russian self-propelled artillery deployed on the separatists’ behalf isn’t self-firing, and the rebels have not been trained in how to operate it. Russian tanks have been involved in the action, too, but they’re cunningly disguised with the elaborate technique of decorating them with separatist flags. Hopefully the Russians won’t give their rebel pals a chance to play around with sophisticated anti-air systems, which are vitally necessary to countering Ukrainian air superiority. The last rebel adventure with anti-air systems didn’t work out so well. Remember when that little caper was said to spell doom for the rebellion, and the end of Putin’s ambitions in eastern Ukraine?
The Russians can also offer their separatist allies the highly useful tactical asset of a safe zone in Russian territory, which they can use to shift their forces into unexpected locations on the Ukrainian border. That would be valuable even if the rebels weren’t unexpectedly turning up with Russian armor and missile launchers.
Fox News explains why Novoazovsk is strategically important to Russia:
Novoazovsk, a resort town of 40,000 on the Sea of Azov, lies in a strategically significant location — on the road linking Russia to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol and onto Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia annexed. Wednesday’s incursion, reported by the town’s mayor, was the first time in the four-month-long conflict between the government in Kiev and separatists in the east that fighting has reached as far south as the seacoast. It suggests that the rebels — who Ukraine, NATO and Western nations all say are being supported by Russia — have been both emboldened and reinforced.
The new southeastern front also raised fears the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea. If successful, it could give them or Russia control over the entire Sea of Azov and the gas and mineral riches that energy experts believe it contains. Ukraine already lost roughly half its coastline, several major ports and significant Black Sea mineral rights in March when Russia annexed Crimea.
Putin is actually holding a conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk and claiming Russia is just a bystander, even as Ukrainian troops climb into their purple-curtained buses and beat a hasty retreat from Russian forces. German Chancellor Angela Merkel rang Putin up and sternly informed him “the latest reports of the presence of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory must be explained,” but at this point, what pressure is upon him to do anything but shrug and say his men, like Bugs Bunny, took a wrong turn in Albuquerque on their way to Pismo Beach? This “stealth invasion” isn’t going to casually ramble all the way to Kiev, but that’s not necessary to achieve the essential objectives of keeping the separatist movement alive, weakening the Ukrainian government, and keeping them out of NATO. With the world’s eyes turned elsewhere, those seem like very achievable goals for Putin.