Remember how tensions appeared to have calmed down on the Russia-Ukraine border earlier today? Good times, good times. Both countries now acknowledge that fighting has erupted between their two military forces, although they disagree on the nature of the conflict. Ukraine insists that it’s in their country, and that they have managed to destroy part of an armored column that invaded their territory:
Ukraine said its troops attacked and partially destroyed an armed convoy that had crossed the border from Russian territory.
Ukrainian government troops engaged the vehicles that had arrived overnight through a rebel-held section of the border, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the country’s military, told reporters in Kiev today. Ukrainian soldiers continue to come under shelling, including rounds fired from Russia, he said.
Nyet, say the Russians. It’s the Ukrainians who attacked the military units protecting a convoy of humanitarian aid that started the conflict, although they seem to concede that the action’s taking place across the border:
Russia’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, said Ukrainian forces are engaging in intense fighting in Eastern Ukraine to stop humanitarian aid to the region.
Well, who could have seen this coming? Just about everyone when Vladimir Putin began putting together his provocative aid convoy. Let’s not forget that Putin sold this as a Red Cross effort to the Russian media while the ICRC denied any involvement in it at all. Today’s inspections were intended to get the Red Cross’ imprimatur on the project, but that didn’t stop Russia from sending in armored personnel carriers — although it did mark the first time they’d been caught at it by the media.
The EU reacted with alarm at the earlier incursion, but may find themselves in the first European war since the Balkans:
Europe voiced alarm on Friday over reports that Moscow had sent military hardware into conflict-torn eastern Ukraine, as Kiev prepared to inspect a controversial Russian “aid” convoy parked up at the border.
Tensions, already high over fears Moscow could use its humanitarian mission as a “Trojan horse” to help rebels, spiralled further after Ukraine’s military confirmed British media reports that a small convoy of Russian armoured vehicles was seen breaching the frontier.
“If there are any Russian military personnel or vehicles in Ukraine they need to be withdrawn immediately or the consequences will be very serious,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said.
Moscow has denied the allegations, the latest claims from the West that it has sent armour across the border to help pro-Kremlin separatists who launched an insurgency against Kiev in April.
Moscow isn’t denying it now, apparently, just claiming that it was part of the humanitarian effort.
We’ll keep our eye on further developments.
Update: The UK has summoned the Russian ambassador to explain their actions:
#BREAKING Britain says summons Russian envoy over Ukraine incursion reports
— AFP news agency (@AFP) August 15, 2014
No word yet on an official reaction from the Obama administration.
Update: Russia says it’s still in talks with Ukraine over the aid, according to a flash update at CNBC, but warns Ukraine not to disrupt the aid convoy:
Russia, meanwhile, accused Ukraine of attempting to disrupt its humanitarian aid mission to eastern Ukraine and called for a ceasefire in the region to allow for the deliveries. The Kremlin has continuously denied sending weapons and troops into Ukraine.
“We draw attention to the sharp intensification of military action by Ukrainian forces with the apparent aim to stop the path, agreed on with Kiev, of a humanitarian convoy across the Russia-Ukraine border,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
That depends on which side of the border the Russian APCs were engaged, no?
Update: Now the EU has responded by telling Russia to back off:
#BREAKING EU ministers urge Russia to put 'immediate stop' to border hostilities
— AFP news agency (@AFP) August 15, 2014
Still no word from the White House or Martha’s Vineyard. Nothing on the State Department website as of 11:39 ET either.
Update: As of 12:30 ET still no statement from the White House. The Financial Times reports that it’s been grim for the rebellion even before now, and will get even more so:
The resignation of Igor Girkin, the Russian military mastermind behind the takeover of large parts of eastern Ukraine by rebel fighters, this week was the latest crack to appear at the top of the months-long rebellion that has become increasingly strained.
His departure is the third high-profile change in the rebel hierarchy in the past week. Alexander Borodai, also a Muscovite, stepped down last week as prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. With Mr Girkin, he was part of Russian-backed separatist forces in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria in the early 1990s.
The replacement of both with Ukrainians marks a transition in the leadership from highly trained Russian military officers to locally recruited warlords in an increasingly tense stand-off with Ukrainian forces.
“It will be like Stalingrad,” an armed rebel nicknamed Taipan recently told the Financial Times, referring to the battle between the separatists and government forces that is expected in coming days and weeks.
Or hours. Or minutes.
Update: But what about the aid? Turns out it’s mostly vaporware:
A convoy of Russian trucks carrying aid for eastern Ukraine has been opened up to journalists at the border. …
The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg noted that many of the trucks were “almost empty”.
Update, 13:21 ET: The Russians have finally gotten around to denying everything:
The Russian defence ministry denied Friday that it had sent a military convoy into Ukraine after officials in Kiev said they destroyed part of the armoured column.
Major-General Igor Konashenkov said “there exists no Russian military convoy that supposedly crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border…”, but better that Ukraine’s armed forces “destroy phantoms instead of refugees or their own soldiers,” he added, according to Russian news agencies.
Yeah, well, except …
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen backed reports of the “Russian incursion” after British media said it had seen the convoy of some 20 vehicles cross the border.
Still no word from President Obama, either.