Ukrainians have warned for months that Russia has been conducting a low-level war in eastern Ukraine, and not just by aiding so-called separatists in the restive region. The government in Kyiv has insisted that Russian forces have infiltrated the east, and that the “pro-Russian separatists” were largely Russians rather than Ukrainians, attempting to create a provocation that would allow Vladimir Putin to seize more territory, just as he did with Crimea. Those complaints have picked up in recent weeks, corroborated in part when British journalists saw a column of armored Russian vehicles cross the border, which Kyiv later claimed they’d destroyed. Russia has denied all of this, claiming that the only cross-border communications they have sent was humanitarian aid and nothing more.
This time, the Ukrainians have undeniable evidence — actual Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine:
This time, Moscow claims that the Russians simply got lost:
A group of Russian soldiers captured in eastern Ukraine had crossed the border “by accident”, Russian military sources are quoted as saying.
Ukraine said 10 paratroopers had been captured and has released video interviews of some of the men. One is quoted as saying “this is not our war”. …
A Russian defence ministry source was quoted by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti as saying: “The soldiers really did participate in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossed it by accident on an unmarked section, and as far as we understand showed no resistance to the armed forces of Ukraine when they were detained.”
It’s possible that a group of paratroopers got lost, but it doesn’t seem terribly likely. Paratroopers are normally deployed to prepare for a larger invasion, not for ground operations that accidentally cross borders. The US Ambassador to Ukraine called this part of a “Russian directed counter offensive”:
The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway. #escalation
— Geoffrey Pyatt (@USAmbPyatt) August 26, 2014
The timing couldn’t be worse for Russia, either:
Russia has always denied assertions by Ukraine, backed by the United States and the European Union, that it has been sending arms and troops across the border to support pro-Moscow separatists. The rebels have been fighting Ukraine’s army since April in a war that has killed over 2,000 people and triggered Western sanctions against Russia.
Tuesday’s video provided the strongest evidence yet to back up Kiev’s claims, sharply raising the stakes before a meeting between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the Belarussian capital Minsk. …
The Russian servicemen were detained, with their personal documents and weapons, near the small town of Amvrosiyivka in Donetsk region, the Ukrainian state security service said.
“Officially they are on military exercises in various corners of Russia. In reality they are involved in military aggression against Ukraine,” Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said in a Facebook post.
Needless to say, this makes an already-doubtful summit meeting even less likely to achieve success:
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, along with other European leaders, will attend a summit Tuesday in Minsk, Belarus, to discuss the five-month-old conflict, which has left some 2,000 people dead, as well as other trade and regional issues. It will be the first face-to-face meeting of the two leaders since June.
It appeared doubtful, however, that any headway toward a peace agreement would be made, and the alleged Russian incursion into southeastern Ukraine — which Moscow denied — showed how difficult it will be for Ukraine to reestablish control over its own territory.
For most leaders, this would provide enough of an embarrassment to force a halt in their strategies. Not Vladimir Putin, though. If anyone believes that Putin will slow his roll into eastern Ukraine just because he’s been caught red-handed with paratroopers on the other side of the border, think again. Putin has taken his measure of the West and thinks he can live with the economic pain for the short period of time in which sanctions will bite. Fall is coming, and with it the need for Russian gas in eastern Europe. Nothing in the past few weeks other than the lack of an all-out invasion to relieve the rebels gives any indication that Putin’s plans have been deflected to any significant degree. Don’t expect a few POWs to shame Putin into backing down now.