In the real war in eastern Ukraine, it is an inauspicious time to hold a high command in the separatist forces. Under relentless pounding by the Ukrainian military, their rebellion is crumbling. Government troops have advanced to the outskirts of Donetsk, and over the weekend broke into the rebels’ other remaining stronghold, Luhansk.
In the wake of these and other setbacks, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia appears to be maneuvering for a face-saving settlement, analysts say, a way to escape a losing situation without puncturing his strongman image or antagonizing the ultranationalists at home who were expecting him to follow up his annexation of Crimea with an invasion of Ukraine.
Step 1 has been a change in leadership. In recent weeks, in what separatist officials hopefully call the “Ukrainianization” of the leadership, almost all the original Russian leaders of the rebellion have resigned and gone home, replaced by Ukrainians of dubious qualifications.
NATO and Ukraine said that a column of military vehicles crossed into Ukraine from Russia last night and that most of them had been destroyed by Ukrainian artillery fire. It was not clear whether Russian soldiers or rebel separatists were driving the vehicles.
President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine said in a statement on his website that he could confirm some Western news reports that the column had crossed into Ukraine last night.
“The president informed that the given information was trustworthy and confirmed because the majority of the machines had been eliminated by Ukrainian artillery at night,” the statement said.
Dozens of heavy Russian military vehicles massed on Friday near the border with Ukraine, while Ukrainian border guards crossed the frontier to inspect a huge Russian aid convoy.
Kiev has said the humanitarian aid might be used as cover for a Russian military intervention, and has insisted that its forces check the convoy before it moves across the border.
Moscow has denied any ulterior motives, but has allowed Ukrainian border guards to enter Russia and look at the caravan of trucks in an area opposite the frontier town of Izvaryne.
“Ukrainian border guards are there already in large numbers,” border guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko said. The Ukrainian military said the inspection began on Friday morning, but it was not clear how long the process might take.
But accord has soured into acrimony with the spokesman for Ukrainian President Poroshenko accusing Moscow of possibly planning a “direct invasion of Ukrainian territory under the guise of delivering humanitarian aid.”
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said that he “had information” that the convoy won’t go through Kharkiv, but that “nobody knows where it will go.”
That leaves the option for the convoy to go through a portion of the border further south that is under the control of the armed pro-Russian separatist rebels that the government has been battling for the last four months. This scenario would all but certainly not involve the Red Cross and is viewed with profound hostility by the Ukrainian government.
Lysenko said that any deliveries of aid “that don’t have the mandate of the Red Cross … are taken as aggressive forces and the response will be adequate to that.”
Ukraine denounced Russia’s dispatch of a humanitarian aid convoy now advancing towards the border as an act of unbounded cynicism serving pro-Russian separatists, and the UN said the death toll in fighting had doubled in the last two weeks to over 2,000.
Kiev said the trucks would not be allowed to pass.
“First they send tanks, Grad missiles and bandits who fire on Ukrainians and then they send water and salt,” Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said at a government meeting on Wednesday.
Millions of people in Turkey are voting Sunday in the country’s first direct presidential election.
Turnout is expected to be high as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former chief of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and Selahattin Demirtas of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party.
Erdogan is the front-runner. If elected, he says he intends to change the constitution and establish an executive presidency. In the past, Turkey’s presidents have been ceremonial figureheads.
Rebel-Held City of Donetsk, Ukraine, Beset by Fighting Despite Pro-Russian Forces’ Cease-Fire Request
Fighting raged Sunday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk despite a request from the pro-Russian rebels there for a cease-fire to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
One person was killed and 10 injured in shelling that started early Sunday morning and continued into the day, city council spokesman Maxim Rovinsky told The Associated Press.
Conditions were clearly deteriorating in Donetsk, the largest rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine. Associated Press reporters heard 25 loud explosions in as many minutes about noon on Sunday. More than 10 residential buildings, as well as a hospital and a shop, were heavily damaged by shelling overnight, and several buses caught in the crossfire were still burning Sunday morning.
And that brings with it a huge problem. Putin’s tacit social contract with the Russian people is based on a very basic exchange: Putin makes sure the Russian people become materially better off, and the Russian people leave the politics to Putin. So far, both sides have delivered. The crushing majority of Russians support the Kremlin’s line or avoid politics like the plague, and the GDP per capita has increased from $1,771 when Putin came to power in 2000, to more than $14,000 today. That’s a faster growth rate than China’s. “If there were a material change in the way people live in Russia,” says Weafer, “we’d see a change in the political dynamic like we’ve never seen before.”
Geopolitics and the economy are Putin’s two sources of strength, and both are failing him now. In eastern Ukraine, he is increasingly boxed-in, and the economy has been sputtering for about a year, thanks to corruption, inefficiency, and the Sochi Olympics. Capital flight has already reached $75 billion for the first half of 2014, according to the Russian government’s own data, and that’s before the real sanctions were introduced. (By comparison, capital flight for all of 2013 was $63 billion, and in 2012, it was $49 billion.) Russia is not technically in a recession, but that’s because growth has been hovering at zero all year. The Ministry of Economic Development has been using the term “stagnation” since December. Stagnation felled the Soviet Union, and, if the economy dips into recession, it could easily topple Putin, too.
But before the West celebrates the possibility of Putin being forced from the throne, we should consider what might come after him. This is not an argument against sanctions or against political change in Russia. But the country’s history tells us that prolonged economic malaise often brings about political turmoil, the result of which has never been a democratic Russia.
Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and could use the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission to invade, NATO said on Wednesday.
Stating the conflict in Ukraine was fueled by Russia, NATO said in a statement that the troop build-up had further escalated “a dangerous situation”.
“We’re not going to guess what’s on Russia’s mind, but we can see what Russia is doing on the ground - and that is of great concern. Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine’s eastern border,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in an emailed statement.
Pro-Russian separatists opened fire on unarmed Ukrainian soldiers on Tuesday as they crossed back into Ukraine from Russia where they had taken shelter from fighting, Kiev defense officials said.
Ukraine acknowledged on Monday that 311 soldiers and border guards had been forced by fighting with separatists to cross into Russia. It said they had destroyed their weapons before crossing the border, but the rebels said they had left them behind, enabling separatists to seize them.
“Today at about 6 a.m. (separatist) fighters treacherously fired on a column in which there were 195 unarmed Ukrainian troops returning from the Russian Federation,” Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the national defense council, told Interfax news agency. He had no immediate word on casualties.