Russia and Ukraine appear to be flexing their muscles ahead of talks in Geneva on Thursday, when the two rivals will be joined by the EU and U.S. to try to hash out their ongoing dispute.
Ukraine is trying to reassert control over it's volatile eastern regions ahead of Thursday's talks, but according to Reuters, the efforts have done little more than turn the region into a site of military pageantry for both sides:
Government troops had driven armored personnel carriers flying the Ukrainian flag into the town of Kramatorsk in the early morning after securing control of a nearby airfield from the rebels on Tuesday... Several of the same vehicles later rumbled into Slaviansk, just 9 miles away, with Russian and separatist flags and armed men in motley combat fatigues on top. They stopped outside the town hall, which is occupied by separatists. As they drove in waving, some people waved back and shouted: "Well done lads!" and "Russia" Russia!"
The relative shows of force were accompanied by heightened rhetoric. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that "Russia has a new commodity for export in addition to oil and gas -- terrorism," adding, "It’s become clear our Russian neighbors have decided to build a new Berlin Wall and want a return to the Cold War.” Meanwhile, the Kremlin quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that "The sharp escalation of the conflict puts the country, in effect, on the brink of civil war."
By all accounts (except for Russia's), the characterization of the conflict as a strictly internal one is way off. Despite the Kremlin's claims to the contrary, Ukraine and other world powers blame Moscow for consistently stirring the pot in Ukraine. Pro-Russian forces were responsible for the occupations of several government buildings in east Ukraine last week, and the United Nations has questioned the Kremlin's claim that ethnic Russians suffered persecution in Crimea — which was their justification for annexing the region in the first place.
#BREAKING Ukraine security service says same Russian agents in east as in Crimea— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) April 16, 2014
According to the New York Times, Russian officials have taken such liberty with how they talk about the crisis that it's virtually impossible for listeners to separate fact from fiction:
It is an extraordinary propaganda campaign that political analysts say reflects a new brazenness on the part of Russian officials. And in recent days, it has largely succeeded — at least for Russia’s domestic audience — in painting a picture of chaos and danger in eastern Ukraine... In essence, Moscow’s state-controlled news media outlets are loudly and incessantly calling on Ukraine and the international community to calm a situation that Ukraine, the United States and the European Union say the Kremlin is doing its best to destabilize.
Meanwhile, on the ground it seems the threat of violence is still much more prevalent than any actual violence, per Reuters:
In [parts of] Kramatorsk, there was no overt sign of hostility as several hundred people milled around another cluster of six APCs from the 25th paratroop brigade from Dnieperpetrovsk. Some residents gave the soldiers tea and bread.
There are even reports that unarmed citizens stopped the advance of Ukrainian tanks, simply by standing in the way.
Still, European countries are taking the escalating crisis seriously, and things could be taking a turn even now.
#BREAKING Pro-Russians seize six Ukraine armoured vehicles in east: ministry— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) April 16, 2014
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance will bolster military support in Eastern Europe "within days." And Netherlands Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis said the country is considering deploying F-16 fighter jets to stabilize the situation, saying "we are looking at how we can increase our air support or sea support in, say, the Baltic or the Black Sea region. We are members of an alliance for a reason and we will take our responsibilities." Hopefully, those deployments will be an unnecessary precaution.