The agreement to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis, signed at a meeting last week in Geneva by top foreign policy executives of Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine, failed to decrease tensions and prevent further escalation (see EDM, April 17). The armed pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk refused to disarm or de-occupy buildings as agreed in Geneva. Whereas, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Gnezdilov, told reporters: “We will de-occupy the regional administration building only after the illegal government in Kyiv is disbanded” (https://rus.newsru.ua/ukraine/18apr2014/neujdut_print.html).
On Easter Sunday, April 20, when all offices should have been closed, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official statement accusing Ukrainian nationalists affiliated with the so-called “Right Sector” of attacking and killing pro-Russian activists in the outskirts of Slovyansk—a strategically important town in the Donetsk region, occupied by armed pro-Russian rebels. This statement accused the authorities in Kyiv of failing to follow the Geneva agreement to de-escalate tensions or control and disarm “nationalist extremists” (https://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/0DE97F7486FE0B1C44257CC0002F4C26). The leader of the armed Slovyansk rebels, Vyacheslav Ponomaryev, called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to send in troops as “peacekeepers” into eastern Ukraine to defend the population from attacks by “fascists and imperialists that want to enslave us” (https://rus.newsru.ua/ukraine/18apr2014/neujdut_print.html). The Ukrainian authorities have accused Russia of deploying to eastern Ukraine armed special forces units that are leading and organizing local pro-Russian rebels. Moreover, the Ukrainian government has claimed to have arrested several of these Russian agents (https://news.liga.net/print/news/politics/1484317-sbu_zaderzhala_dvukh_diversantov.htm).
The interim Ukrainian president, Oleksandr Turchynov, accused Russia and “its terrorist special forces units” deployed in eastern Ukraine of “disregarding the Geneva agreement” (https://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2014/04/22/7023224/).
As the Geneva agreement unraveled, the Russian state-controlled TV propaganda machine went into overdrive, accusing the US Navy of spending money to renovate high schools in Sevastopol to covertly turn them into espionage centers (https://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1510508). Simon Ostrovsky (33), a Soviet-born American journalist, was detained by rebels in Slovyansk and accused by Rossiya-1 TV of being an informer of the Right Sector extremists (https://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1509756). Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the US of being in charge of the events in Ukraine and claimed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was occupying part of the building of the Ukrainian national Security Council as its local operation station (https://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1510189&tid=105474). The Ukrainian army was described by Rossiya-1 as fully “demoralized,” apparently implying that a possible military invasion of Ukraine would be a walkover (https://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1509853&tid=105474). According to Rossiya-1, “Putin is today the dominant world leader, who returned Russia to the top league of world politics” and “the Western victory in the Cold War may be turned around against the victors” (https://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1509749).
Lavrov announced, on April 23, that Russia will consider it a casus belli and invade Ukraine, “If our legitimate interests and Russians are attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example [the pretext of the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 was military action by Georgian troops against armed separatists in South Ossetia].” Lavrov acknowledged that Russian troops are concentrated on the Ukrainian border, but “they are on our territory at this stage.” According to Lavrov, Ukrainian troops are on their side of the border, “but they have orders from Turchynov to use weapons against civilians, and this is a criminal order” (https://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/450039E42C18F92944257CC3005F79FE).
On April 24, skirmishes were reported between armed pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian security forces at rebel-controlled roadblocks on the outskirts of Slovyansk. Reports also emerged of several rebel casualties. Putin, speaking at an IT forum in St. Petersburg, claimed he knew about the situation only from the media, but still condemned Kyiv: “If current authorities in Kyiv have used force, they are a junta [meaning, are illegitimate],” and this is “clearly a grave crime.” According to Putin, the timely deployment of Russian forces in Crimea that eventually led to its annexation “prevented even worse bloodshed than now in Eastern and South Ukraine” (https://ria.ru/world/20140424/1005265884.html#ixzz2zo9aqnBi).
While Putin was at a forum in St. Petersburg, Russian troops were already on the move and war planes were in the air circling the Ukrainian border. In Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced: “Orders [by the Ukrainian leadership] have been given to attack civilians and there are casualties already. If this military machine is not stopped, there will be more dead and wounded.” According to Shoigu, “The balance of forces is tilted”—there are some 11,000 Ukrainian soldiers, 160 tanks, 230 armored vehicles and 150 artillery heavy guns deployed against just some 2,000 badly armed rebels. Shoigu mentioned the 17th tank and 24th mechanized Ukrainian brigades moved from western Ukraine along with National Guard units, “battalions of Right Sector extremists,” as well as Ukrainian special forces and interior ministry units. The situation is further aggravated, according to Shoigu, by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military exercises in Poland and the Baltic States as well as special Ukrainian “motorized sabotage units, [which] have been activated near the Russian border.” “We are forced to respond,” announced Shoigu, “Joint forces battalion tactical groups of the Southern and Western military districts have begun exercises in the proximity of the Ukrainian border by marching and deploying, ready to go into action, supported by airpower” (https://www.rg.ru/2014/04/24/shoigu-site-anons.html).
The “exercises” announced by Shoigu seem to be marching orders to deploy joint forces battalion combat units with air support. These units will be the spearhead of a possible massive invasion of Ukraine that may happen in the coming 24 hours—as soon as the forces are all in attack positions on all fronts, possibly involving not only Donetsk and Lugansk, but other regions. Amphibious assault operations by the Black Sea marines and landings by the Russian Airborne Forces (Voennye Vodzdusheny Voiska—VDV) corps are possible. The strategic decision to go seems to have been taken beforehand and the stern reaction to the incident in Slovyansk did not require a special meeting, on April 24, of the Russian Security Council. The Ukrainian authorities responded by calling back their forces from the outskirts of Slovyansk. According to sources in Kyiv, it was planned to fully clear rebels out of Slovyansk, but “Ukrainian intelligence reported [that] the threat of a Russian invasion has increased dramatically” (https://www.interfax.ru/world/373683). It is not clear whether the Ukrainian withdrawal will stop the Russian war machine, which is in full swing as it moves into attack. It would be a miracle if it did at this late hour.