On Friday, Russia sent a supply column of more than 200 trucks rumbling into Ukraine and then, the next day, back out again. Since the Ukraine crisis began, Moscow has done many dangerous and deadly things. But this convoy ranks as one of the oddest. Until now, Russia has discreetly supplied the pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine with tanks, rockets, and other heavy equipment. This time, however, Russia invited reporters to view a fleet of vehicles violating the border. Why? The question becomes even more perplexing when you consider that, according to the BBC, many of the trucks were “mostly empty.”
Russia itself described the convoy as a humanitarian act, designed to carry necessary supplies (including baby food) to the shrinking Russian-controlled enclave in eastern Ukraine. But while Russian state media broadcast video of the trucks driving toward Ukraine, they did not bother with images of the trucks unloading their aid to grateful recipients. It’s as if they didn’t much care whether their propaganda convinced anyone or not. Their coverage leaves the impression that so publicly violating the border was the end in itself.
Russia started with the so-called “little green men”—Russian soldiers without insignia on their green uniforms—then proceeded with uniforms with epaulets and the annexation of Crimea. Russia has been the force behind, and on the ground, with the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
It is an invasion that is already well in place.
The comments above are from an August 18 interview with Strobe Talbott, a longtime Russia expert and the current president of the Brookings Institution. Talbott identifies a fact of this crisis that cannot be repeated often enough: Throughout, Russia has pursued a policy of escalation, acting more aggressively and more visibly from month to month to month. Russia escalated the conflict after the annexation of Crimea. It escalated when Ukraine finally began to fight back against the pro-Russian militias that seized cities in the east. It escalated even as the casualty count rose from zero to hundreds to now more than 2,000. It escalated despite global shock after the shootdown of a Malaysia Airlines flight killed almost 300 citizens of 10 countries. It’s escalating again now.
On the same day as the convoy’s theatrical but seemingly pointless mission, NATO officials publicly charged that “Russian artillery support—both cross-border and from within Ukraine—is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces.” Russian military units are now firing at Ukrainian forces from positions on Ukrainian territory. If that’s not an invasion, it’s hard to know what else to call it.
Invasion is the reason why this conflict is not just a local story, of interest only to neighbors. Russia has been rejecting the post-1991 division of the Soviet Union’s former territories for many years: in Transnistria, in South Ossetia, in Abkhazia, and in other places that might be difficult for Americans to find on a map. Now that rejection of the post-1991 division has provoked open warfare between two of Europe’s largest states.
Ukraine did not resist the Russian annexation of Crimea. But as Russian aggression has continued against mainland Ukraine, resistance has gathered—and grown ever more lethal for civilian populations. Only around 330 of the 2,000 recorded casualties have been Ukrainian soldiers. Poorly trained and equipped, the Ukrainian armed forces have fought back by blasting artillery and rocket launchers in the general direction of Russian and pro-Russian occupying forces. It’s wise practice to disbelieve most of what you hear on Russian state TV, but not all the allegations of misdirected Ukrainian fire are false.
On a visit to Kiev to celebrate the country’s August 24 independence day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged both Russia and Ukraine to reach a peaceful settlement. She backed her emollient words with a pledge of 500 million euros for reconstruction and the resettlement of refugees. But it takes two to make peace, and only one to force war. As newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told Merkel: “Please, take away armed men from our territory and I can guarantee that peace in Ukraine will be established very soon.”