Ukraine's President, Petro Poroshenko, has said that his nation’s conflict with Russia was “escalating” after a column of 32 tanks, 30 lorries and 16 heavy artillery pieces was reported to have entered the separatist-controlled eastern region of Luhansk.
A Nato military officer told Reuters he had seen an increase in Russian troops and equipment along the Ukraine border, and was investigating the report of tanks entering the breakaway region.
Hundreds have been killed since a ceasefire was signed in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, on 5 September, and one Ukrainian commander described it as less a step towards peace than a “strategic pause”. The arrival of the tanks, said to be heading south towards the town of Krasny Luch, suggests the pause may not endure much longer. Fighting is reported every day from Luhansk and Donetsk.
Yesterday’s alleged tank invasion, reported by a Ukrainian defence spokesman, came a day after the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, summoned security chiefs to discuss the situation; no new moves were announced afterwards.
The incursion also follows a poll in which residents of the disputed south-east of Ukraine voted heavily in favour of a pro-Russian leader for the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic. President Poroshenko denounced the election as “a farce” and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s new foreign policy chief, called it “an obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine”.
Russia quickly announced that it would “respect” the election result, and said the newly elected leaders have a “mandate” to negotiate a peace agreement with the government in Kiev. But a spokesman for the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the Russian reaction was “incomprehensible”, and ruled out the early lifting of sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea in March. Kiev’s angry reaction to the elections and the reported incursion of new Russian heavy weaponry increased fears that the ceasefire could now be discarded entirely. Kiev is particularly worried that the separatists may be preparing to launch new attacks into what remains of Kiev-held Ukraine, perhaps blasting a corridor across the country to enable it to supply Crimea, which is reachable from Russia only by ferry.
The only country so far to recognise the result of Sunday’s elections in Donetsk and Luhansk is the tiny region of South Ossetia, on the Russian border with Georgia; it was the focus of a brief but fierce war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 which Georgia lost. In another indication of the growing tensions across what Moscow calls its “near-abroad”, Georgia’s pro-western ruling coalition suffered a blow when a number of ministers, including Maia Panjikidze, the foreign minister, resigned.
The exodus followed the launch of a corruption investigation into the defence minister Irakli Alanasia, who resigned and pulled his party, the Free Democrats, out of the government, protesting that the investigation was politically motivated.
Mikheil Saakashvili, who led Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” in 2003 and did much to implant democracy in the country, warned this week that Georgia could once again fall into Russia’s grasp. President Putin, he told the US business magazine Forbes, “has a very specific plan and he is not trying to hide this: restoring the Soviet Union in some new form and joining territories directly with Russia”.
Russia had worked “day and night” to destabilise Georgia, he said, although most of what it was doing “was never announced [by the Georgian government]” for fear that doing so would “stop investments from coming”.
Mr Saakashvili, who lives in self-imposed exile in New York after Georgian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest for “exceeding official powers”, claims his country is now in the hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire oligarch who became Prime Minister in 2012 but has since retreated to his 108,000 sq ft compound in the mountains overlooking the capital, Tbilisi.
Mr Saakashvili claimed Mr Ivanishvili was behind the legal cases against him, because “he has other duties and responsibilities… of course to Putin… He will definitely do everything that he [Putin] wants… He had huge backing from the Russians.”
But Professor Neil Macfarlane, a Georgia expert with Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London, said Mr Saakashvili had produced no evidence that the billionaire was acting in Russia’s interests. And he denied that the departure of the western-leaning ministers from Georgia’s government was a sign that the country’s allegiance to the west was weakening.
“It’s all to do with domestic politics,” he told The Independent. “People have been wondering how long it would take for the coalition to fragment: it’s a collection of groups and parties with different interests and rivalries and I never understood how it hung together. There is still unanimous support in parliament for Georgia’s western orientation. This is a tempest in a teapot: the good thing is that it’s happened without any blood being spilt. It’s domestic and regrettable, but it’s the sort of thing that happens in non-totalitarian regimes.”
Given the fragile state of the whole region, he said, “Georgia did not need [this political crisis]… We need to wait and see what it means.
“What we shouldn’t do,” he concluded, “is throw up our hands and say the Georgians are Russian stooges… We should back the government.”
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