The announcement by the Ukrainian government that a combined group of Ukrainian armed forces and Security Service personnel detained ten Russian paratroopers inside Donetsk in east Ukraine should perhaps come as little surprise – nevertheless, it has occurred at an acutely sensitive time.
Ukraine has also claimed two Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters fired unguided rockets at Ukrainian border guards. These claims follow NATO’s confirmation that Russian artillery had fired shells at Ukrainian forces, not only across the border, but also within Ukrainian territory.
And on Thursday the Ukranian president Petro Poroshenko cancelled a visit to Turkey on the basis that “Russian troop deployments” had taken place in the east of the country.
In the short term, the capture of the Russian soldiers provides apparently incontrovertible evidence that regular Russian troops are operating inside Ukrainian territory, something the Ukrainian authorities have alleged for some time and which the Russians continue to deny.
This means that the already faint hope that some diplomatic agreement will be struck are even more tenuous than before.
In the wake of the capture, Russia has been forced to concede that its servicemen were indeed present in Ukrainian territory, but the Russian Defence Ministry claimed the detained soldiers formed part of a patrol which mistakenly crossed the unmarked border into Ukrainian territory and offered no resistance.
However, as the paratroopers are reported to have been detained in the village of Zerkalny, which is approximately 20km inside the border and apparently in government-held territory, the Russian claim that the soldiers were in the area erroneously hardly seems plausible.
While there have been reports of Ukrainian troops crossing into Russia earlier in the four-month long proxy war, this incursion will be yet another embarrassment for Russia in the wake of pro-Russian insurgents apparently mistakenly shooting down MH17.
While Russia seeks a ceasefire to freeze the conflict and is focused on creating a disputed territory comprising parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, Ukraine’s new pro-western government – supported by non-lethal military aid from the USA and NATO – believes it can achieve a military victory over the pro-Russian insurgents.
Since early July, the Ukrainian army, assisted by the newly-formed National Guard battalions as well as irregular volunteer paramilitaries, has had the upper hand in the proxy war. Pro-Russian insurgents lost control of the cities of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk in the north of Donetsk Oblast, and then were increasingly pinned back in their key strongholds in the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Horlivka.
These populous cities became increasingly surrounded by Ukrainian forces which fired mortars, artillery shells, and unguided grad rockets on to civilian populations effectively under siege and facing a humanitarian crisis. Fatal casualties now stand in excess of 2,200, including about 800 pro-Kiev soldiers. At least 330,000 people have escaped the fighting, moving mostly to other parts of Ukraine or to Russia.
With the prospect that the pro-Russian insurgency could be militarily defeated, Russia is apparently increasing its undercover support to the pro-Russian separatists, who comprise local rebels, Russian volunteer irregulars and apparently more and more official Russian soldiers – albeit without official Russian insignia. These are the same so-called “green men” who were involved in preparing the Russian annexation of Crimea in March.
There has also been a build-up of Russian military forces along the border threatening an official invasion. But Russia does not need to formally invade if it can prevent the pro-Russian insurgents from losing in other ways.
High water mark
Recent advances by the pro-Kiev forces have been halted, and there have been reports that the pro-Russian separatists have recaptured some lost territory. Meanwhile, a column of military forces displaying the insignia of the Donetsk People’s Republic has apparently crossed from Russia into Ukraine on the Azov Sea coast, apparently aiming to reach the strategic city of Mariupol.
Mariupol is a city of 500,000, dominated by two huge iron and steel works and a port. Control of it could make a disputed territory in Donetsk and Luhansk economically viable in the medium term at least.
In the longer term, the fact that the ten Russian paratroopers were in Ukrainian territory betrays the enduring weakness of the Ukrainian state since Euromaidan. With the looming spectre of a sovereign debt default and debt restructuring, the country is at the mercy of the IMF.
To make matters worse, winter is looming, and there is no sign of an agreement with Gazprom to restart the flow of natural gas.
It seems likely that Ukraine’s diplomatic bargaining power may have reached a high water mark. As the EU, led by Germany, seeks to limit the effects of sanctions on trade and energy supplies, Ukraine may become ever more exposed in the coming weeks and months.