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Putin’s bluff in Ukraine has become untenable

by Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the ability to deny Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine has always been of utmost importance. The Kremlin has stressed that it is not a party to the fighting, and that all it wants from Ukraine is peace and a few trade concessions. Deniability, however, is fast eroding. Despite increasingly surreal disavowals from Moscow, it is now apparent just how invested Putin is in the conflict’s outcome. That investment terrifies Europe and the United States, which have no desire to match it.

During talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko this week, Putin reiterated his tired message that Russia “cannot talk substantively about a ceasefire, about any agreements between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk — this is none of our business, it’s the business of Ukraine itself.” The assertion rang more hollow than usual, however, amid published photographs of Russian troops captured in Ukraine and furtive hometown burials for Russian paratroopers killed there.

One such burial, of two soldiers, took place in the village of Vybuty near Pskov in northwestern Russia, where an airborne division is based. Efforts to conceal the deaths produced a fiasco. Though the wife of one paratrooper had reported his death on the Vkontakte social network, when a reporter, Ilya Vasyunin of the Russian Planet website, called the wife’s phone number, a woman who answered stated that the paratrooper was alive and well. Two reporters, from Russian Planet and TV Dozhd, who visited the cemetery where the two fresh graves had been seen were immediately attacked by men in black tracksuits. Local journalists, however, succeeded in photographing the graves. According to the independent TV Dozhd, the soldiers’ names and wreaths have been removed from the graves.

There are other reports of paratrooper funerals, which are hard to conceal. Soldiers have grieving families who do not necessarily share the authorities’ desire for deception. In any case, Ukrainian troops have captured some Russian paratroopers. For the first time since the conflict began in March, they were able to record interviews with them.

What the paratroopers said is immaterial given the circumstances under which they were questioned. What matters is that Moscow has admitted that they are Russian servicemen. The Russian defense ministry said the soldiers had been “patrolling the Russian-Ukrainian border and probably crossed it inadvertently in an unmarked area. As far as we know, they did not resist when they were captured by the Ukrainian military.”

That explanation was also cited by Putin, who pointed out, truthfully, that Ukrainian soldiers had also crossed into Russian territory and been sent back. The response might have sufficed to extend the deniability game if not for the soldiers’ deaths, and the efforts of other soldiers’ relatives to track down their loved ones supposedly taking part in military exercises near the Ukrainian border. The mother of one paratrooper, Lyubov Maksimova, gave a press conference Tuesday in which she apologized to Ukraine in the event her son had caused any harm.

In other words, if Russian paratroopers previously had blundered into Ukraine because border markings weren’t visible, they’ve made a habit of the mistake. In the process, some are getting killed. The captured Russian paratroopers, meanwhile, had ridden in unmarked vehicles without Russian insignia — a wholly unnecessary subterfuge had they simply been patrolling their own border.

The involvement of Russian airborne troops in the conflict appears to be a recent phenomenon. Ukrainian servicemen had never captured regular Russian soldiers before, and reporters in the conflict zone had only seen nationalist volunteers and some Chechen fighters helping out the Ukrainian separatists in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. The flow of Russian weapons into the area was documented, and the participation of instructors from Russian intelligence strongly suspected, but that was the extent of it until this week.

Now, with the rebels being hammered by the Ukrainian army, such support is presumably no longer enough. Unwilling to surrender the fight, Putin is surrendering his cherished deniability.

European and U.S. leaders are nevertheless careful not to call this a Russian-Ukrainian war. Nor has the first credible evidence of Russian troops engaged in eastern Ukraine led to calls for further economic sanctions. To call Putin’s increasingly obvious bluff would necessitate supporting the Ukrainian side, possibly with military aid. No one is prepared to do that.

Even Poroshenko is talking only of “stopping the supply of equipment and armaments to the fighters,” lest he saddle his supporters with uncomfortable truths. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, unofficially charged with pacifying Ukraine, is probably right in counting on Poroshenko and Putin to work out some kind of deal. Further escalation could spell disaster for both men. Eventually, they will have to figure out how to stop.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Berlin-based contributor to Bloomberg View.