Never Underestimate the Power of Denial

Even as newly-elected Ukrainian President  Petro Poroshenko inherited the challenging task of restoring peace and security in Eastern and Southern Ukrainian regions marred by fighting against terrorist groups’ self-proclaimed “autonomous people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, there are additional external actors in the trenches that make the Anti-Terrorist Operation even more complex: to be precise, one actor – Russia.

The pro-Russian rebels’ military capability and organization, which have enabled them to resist the Ukrainian army’s assaults, is puzzling. On June 14, pro-Russian separatists shot down a military cargo IL-76, killing 49 servicemen in the worst attack since the beginning of the Anti-Terrorist Operation. On June 12, three Russian tanks were seen in the border town of Snizhne in Eastern Ukraine, together with armed personnel carriers, other armored vehicles and artillery pieces (the Grad, a Soviet truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher) as reported by the Ukrainian Interior Minister. Moreover, combatants have been seen driving new Russian-produced military trucks and are often captured with arms used only by the Russian military. Although Moscow rejects any allegations of illegal border crossings, Ukrainian border guards regularly capture vehicles loaded with weapons and people with military experience trying to cross the border from Russia.

Furthermore, the separatists’ leaders in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk do not conceal military help from Russia. Military rebel Igor Girkin (aka “Strelok”), a known member of Russian Military Intelligence, has been leading the operation against the Ukrainian army since Russia’s occupation of Crimea. In a video from May 18, he clearly acknowledges support from Russia. Likewise, in late May, after videos appeared on the web showing new fighters arriving from Chechnya, the Chechen leader Kadyrov admitted that there were a handful of Chechen fighters in Ukraine, and that thousands were waiting to join them if Putin gave such an order.

Finally, financial investigations by Ukrainian authorities reported large flows of money from Russia to Ukraine and physical cash transported across the border intended for pro-Russian insurgents. Hence, there is sufficient evidence to dispel any doubts concerning Russia’s active role in the upheaval. Nevertheless, as happened in Crimea, the Kremlin denies any involvement in the conflict. Denying the obvious is part of its long-term strategy, which lets time run its course.

Pursuing a strategy of fait accompli, Putin is offering from behind the scenes a classical repertoire that the world has been watching since the collapse of the Soviet Union in different theatres, including in Chechnya, Georgia, Moldova, and most recently Crimea.

The script is always quite the same. Act I: first, Moscow leverages dissatisfaction amid extremist groups opposed to the national government and exacerbates tensions through propaganda aimed at polarizing the contrasting positions. Act II: next, it destabilizes the region by covertly supplying violent separatists with financial aid and logistical support. Act III: finally, it actively intervenes in the areas scourged by the unrest as the guarantor of a new order, which replaces the purposely-generated chaos.

As we leaf through the libretto, we are currently approaching the third act. On June 16, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council chief stated that Moscow has amassed 38,000 troops on its border with Ukraine and continues to supply arms and personnel to rebel forces in the Eastern part of the country. On June 12, Latvia said NATO fighters had scrambled a record four times after a total of 16 Russian military planes were spotted close to the country’s air space.

Against this worrisome background, what will the international community do? Will it wait for the tragic epilogue to be played out yet again or will it stand up from the audience and break down the fourth wall?

Giuseppe Di Luccia for Ukraine Crisis Media Center