Something isn’t adding up in Ukraine

Friday in the Daily Beast:

dailybeast ukraine

Right now Russia is moving troops, armor, and advanced antiaircraft missiles toward the border with Ukraine. In the last 48 hours, dozens of videos have been uploaded to social-media sites that show Russian armor very close to the border, many of them confirmed to be within mere kilometers of Ukraine.

On Thursday, my team at The Interpreter definitively geolocated Russian armor only 2,000 meters (and closing) from the border and a Buk, the same type of missile that likely took down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, only a few hours from being within range of Ukraine’s air force. Columns of tanks, marked with the same painted numbers and flat, pale-green paint we’ve seen in Ukraine since (at least) June 20th, were spotted moving en masse toward a key border crossing. Some Ukrainian journalists are reporting that at least some of this armor has already crossed the border.

Yesterday, the AP reported this:

Fighting raged Sunday on the western outskirts of Donetsk as the advancing Ukrainian army tried to seize control of the rebel stronghold. In danger of being encircled, the separatists renewed their calls for Russia to send troops to their aid.

To support their operations, the pro-Russian fighters have been confiscating vehicles and food from residents and businesses in Donetsk. The center of the major industrial city is all but deserted, with few people or cars on the streets and most stores and restaurants closed.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian military operation, Alexei Dmitrashkovsky, told The Associated Press that government soldiers were fighting Sunday to hold positions they had taken on the edge of Donetsk, but were meeting resistance.

Today, the Ukrainian army reportedly captured a rail hub just north of Donetsk, further encircling the city. There’s also this very unclear report of a few hundred Ukrainian soldiers crossing into Russian territory, almost half of whom have already been returned to Ukraine. Russia claims that they were deserting, while Ukraine claims that they were forced across the border while engaged with rebel fighters. It’s a strange report; if the soldiers were deserting, why have almost half of them returned to Ukraine? But if they weren’t deserting, why are over half of them still in Russia? Are they being held prisoner, or are they there voluntarily?

But back to my main point, which is this: if the Ukrainian army takes Donetsk then the resistance is all but over. It’s even going to be hard for all these Russian weapons that are supposedly moving across the border to have much of an impact, because the Donbas rebels are simply running out of real-estate from which to stage their resistance. For that matter, whatever weaponry has been flowing from Russia to the rebels doesn’t actually seem to be changing the nature of the conflict very much. The rebels still have Luhansk, but that’s also under siege at this point and there are even unconfirmed reports that the Luhansk rebels are negotiating surrender with the Ukrainian army. Oh, but wait; Russia is responding by, uh, conducting another round of blustery maneuvers on the Ukrainian border, which is the kind of thing you do when you’re trying to look scary without actually doing much of anything. I guess Russia could still invade after Donetsk falls, but if they’re going to invade anyway, why not do it before that happens when the rebels are in better shape? So there’s something very out of whack between these reports of Russian weaponry pouring over the border, ahead of an imminent Russian invasion no less, and the actual state of affairs.

I think the reason these two reports don’t add up is that there’s a sensationalist element in the (right-leaning, which as far as I can tell is what “The Interpreter” is) media here in the states that’s been basically itching for Ukraine-Russia to turn into an official shooting match for a while now, and so they’re hyping these things to try and drive the narrative in that direction. But while there are murky aspects of the crisis and particularly of Russia’s role in the crisis, the bottom line seems to be that the Ukrainian army is, despite occasional setbacks, winning. Instead of worrying about what Moscow might hypothetically do over this or any other weekend, right now it would be nice if the Western media trained its attention on how Kiev is treating its defeated rebels and what the Poroshenko government is planning to do to peacefully reincorporate these breakaway regions back into the rest of the country. There is certainly the potential for that reincorporation to go very badly, particularly for the civilians in Donbas who have been alienated from their government ever since Yanukovich was forced out of office. They’ve been the real losers throughout this entire affair, and Poroshenko has to be held accountable for any mistreatment that they suffer moving forward.

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