Remember the Ukraine? Putin dialing up pressure

June 22, 2014 

Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be intentionally taking advantage of the fact that the world’s attention is focused on Iraq right now, but some recent developments in Ukraine certainly haven’t gotten the notice they would have a couple of weeks ago:

Over the weekend, NATO provided satellite imagery backing up recent Ukrainian government claims that unmarked Russian tanks had crossed the border. Russia has denied that it is supplying arms and equipment to separatist groups, and the rebels say they capture their equipment from Ukrainian forces.

Russian energy giant Gazprom cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine on Monday over a long-standing pricing dispute. There was also an explosion at the main pipeline carrying Russian gas through Ukraine to the rest of Europe Tuesday, which the Ukrainian interior ministry blamed on an act of terrorism.

Tuesday also saw some of the heaviest fighting between Ukrainian security forces and separatist rebels since the conflict began in April with clashes along the Russian border. The fighting comes just a few days after separatists shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane, killing 49 servicemen.

A Ukrainian government mortar attack near Luhansk also killed a Russian TV journalist.

The crisis in Ukraine appeared to be dying down following the election of President Petro Poroshenko when Putin appeared to be backing down on his rhetorical support for the rebels and removing troops from the border.

Putin ordered a tightening of the border a couple of weeks ago and has been in contact with Poroshenko, but if the tank story is true, it seems as if Russia is at least allowing military equipment to cross into the hands of the rebels if not actively sending it. Even on the porous Ukrainian-Russian borders, columns of armored vehicles are the kind of thing that get noticed.

Meanwhile, Poroshenko says he will outline a peace plan soon and is willing to negotiate with rebels, just not those with “blood on their hands” — which likely means the government won’t actually be talking to those who are actually doing the fighting.

As with gas supplies, the rebel movement may be a force that Russia is able to turn up or turn down depending on when it’s politically expedient. At the moment, with the international community’s attention elsewhere, the Kremlin seems to be dialing up the pressure.

Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics

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