Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko released a statement Friday claiming that Ukrainian forces have destroyed the majority of a Russian military convoy in eastern Ukraine. The Russian foreign ministry has also released a statement drawing 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,” according to CNBC and Reuters.
It is difficult to ascertain exactly what has transpired within the war-torn region of eastern Ukraine over the past 24 hours. It’s likely that Russian military vehicles have crossed into Ukraine over the past day — something witnessed by two respected journalists on the ground. And both governments have announced that there’s a heightened state of tension between their militaries.
But whether that amounts to a full-scale battle — the opening volley of a war between the Russian and Ukrainian states and a serious escalation of the current fight between Kiev and Moscow-supported separatists in eastern Ukraine — isn’t entirely clear at the moment.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson at the U.K.’s U.N. mission told Business Insider that the U.K. government, which holds the Security Council’s rotating presidency, was aware of the reports but that there were no immediate plans for a Security Council session in response to them.
“We’re looking into getting information at this point,” the spokesperson said, adding that “the situation is likely to evolve.”
Here’s what we know so far.
Ukrainian forces inspected a Russian “aid convoy” on Friday.
This week, Russia sent a convoy of about 280 trucks, some of them bearing the logo of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to Ukraine. Russia was going to deliver aid to a border checkpoint near the Ukrainian-held city of Kharkhiv, but the convoy was rerouted to a border crossing held by pro-Russian separatists.
The convoy has remained outside of Ukraine. Today, Ukrainian border guards were allowed to inspect the contents of the aid trucks. Ukraine had insisted on this step before allowing the aid to cross into Ukraine, since the Red Cross has been unable to verify the trucks’ contents.
“At the moment it is not an International Red Cross convoy inasmuch as we haven’t had sight of the material, we haven’t had certain information regarding the content, and the volume of aid that it contains,” ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson told Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty on Tuesday.
Friday’s possible fighting involved a different, explicitly military convoy, though. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Friday that “the majority of [the] machines had been eliminated by the Ukrainian artillery at night,” suggesting that the alleged confrontation had to do with a separate group of military vehicles that had entered Ukrainian territory.
The trucks in the aid convoy were “mostly empty.”
The BBC reported that the aid convoy wasn’t carrying much aid or even much of anything. The trucks were largely empty. It’s possible the convoy was a carefully timed distraction from other Russian activities along the border with Ukraine.
Moscow is sending mixed signals about Friday’s events.
Russia’s foreign ministry released a statement suggesting that the mostly empty “aid” convoy was in imminent danger of attack from the Ukrainian military, in light of what the ministry characterised as a “sharp intensification of military action” by Kiev’s forces.
Meanwhile Russia’s defence ministry says that Ukrainian claims of a successful attack on Russian military vehicles inside of their territory are “pure fantasy,” and the ministry denied that a Russian column had crossed the border.
Right now, the Russian government is saying that no confrontation took place while claiming that the Ukrainians were itching for a fight in the first place.
Russian armoured personnel carriers (APCs) had likely already crossed into Ukraine before this alleged incident.
Last night a column of Russian APCs reportedly crossed the Ukrainian border at the rebel-held crossing of Izvaryne. Ukraine has alleged that these crossings are frequent and that Russia constantly violates Ukraine’s sovereignty. This was the first Russian crossing into Ukraine that journalists actually witnessed.
Ambiguous incidents like this can sharply escalate conflicts before the facts are in.
One of the most significant contemporary examples of this phenomenon involves Russia. In August 2008, an outburst of violence in Tskhinvali, the capital of the Russian-backed breakaway republic of South Ossetia, triggered a Russian invasion of Georgia. The Russians alleged, and an E.U. report later determined, that the Georgian military had opened fire on the city, which is ruled by a Russian-recognised separatist government that receives economic, political, and military support from the Kremlin despite being part of Georgia under international law.
But there’s still debate about what exactly caused the Georgia war (there’s evidence that Russia was mobilizing troops in the days before the outbreak in violence). Vladimir Putin deftly created ambiguity, seizing the strategic initiative beneath a gathering cloud of uncertainty and rapidly escalating the conflict before the situation on the ground could be clarified.
Something similar could be happening right now. It’s unclear what, if anything, transpired between Ukranian and Russian troops Friday. But as the international community attempts to make sense of today’s events, Putin is likely already executing his next move.
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