Over the weekend, Ukrainian officials asserted that 32 Russian tanks had been spotted entering rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine.
Initially, there was no confirmation from NATO — they said they would look into it — and it seemed highly implausible to me, since much of the Russian military aid effort has hinged upon unmarked equipment and uniforms and insisting that separatist forces could have all those people and weapons without Russian donations. Tanks are not in the same category. My thought was: how would Russia convince everyone that homegrown separatists had acquired 32 tanks magically? Trucks and rockets can be bought and imported easily (by comparison) and discreetly. Tanks, in bulk, don’t belong to non-state forces unless captured (which doesn’t usually happen en masse except in Iraq!) or transferred by a state actor (i.e. Russia). So if the rebels suddenly get 32 tanks, nobody but Russia could have given that to them, which removes plausible deniability.
Today, NATO’s top officials confirmed tanks, other heavy equipment, and more combat troops had indeed been sighted entering the country. BBC:
Nato officials have seen Russian military equipment and Russian combat troops entering Ukraine this week, its top commander says. “Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defence systems and Russian combat troops” were sighted, US Gen Philip Breedlove said.
Russia’s defence ministry denied that its troops were in eastern Ukraine to help pro-Russian separatists there. However, the rebels have admitted being helped by “volunteers” from Russia.
Nato’s Supreme Commander in Europe General Philip Breedlove has confirmed that over the past two days, Nato has seen columns of Russian armour, artillery and crucially – combat troops – entering Ukraine.
General Breedlove also confirmed that Nato believes Russia is deploying nuclear-capable weapons to Crimea – a reference to reports that Russia is deploying short-range Iskander ballistic missiles there that could potentially be equipped with nuclear warheads.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has reported seeing unmarked convoys in the region in recent days.
Russia can deny it all they want, but once tanks show up in bulk, it’s pretty clear where they’re coming from. In contrast, whatever claims Russia’s government has made about Western military assistance to the Ukrainian government — which has been negligible as far as we’re publicly aware — only one side of the conflict is being given tanks and heavy weapons systems by outside parties.
As a bonus, for this story, I’ve produced a new eastern Ukraine map.