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Putin’s New Clothes

Putin’s New Clothes

On the night of Aug. 14, the Telegraphs Roland Oliphant and the Guardians Shaun Walker both witnessed, as the latter put it, "a column of [armored personnel carriers] and vehicles with official Russian military plates cross [the] border into Ukraine." It’s not that this was anything out of the ordinary: Russia has been moving all manner of materiel into Ukraine for weeks, as the Interpreter has documented, all under the watchful gaze of U.S. and NATO satellites — thereby establishing a new normalcy for what does and does not constitute foreign aggression in a neighboring country.

It was, however, the first time any Western reporters had seen Russia sending armaments next door, and the way the hardware was transferred was also noteworthy. A convoy of at least 23 vehicles waited "until sunset near a refugee camp just outside Donetsk," Oliphant reported, "before moving towards the crossing without turning off headlights or making any other attempt to conceal itself."

Vladimir Putin now seems to be relying on the Eddie Murphy "wasn’t me" excuse, no doubt with the understanding that having a bald-faced lie exposed by independent witnesses matters not when the rest of the world seems unwilling to do anything about it. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the event a "Russian incursion" — but not an outright "invasion" — into Ukraine, proving once again that diplomatic euphemism is a handmaid to authoritarian propaganda. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius elaborated that "70 pieces of military equipment" disappeared into Ukraine overnight, which no doubt added to the unknown number of pieces already in the hands of pro-Russian separatists — though how many pieces are still intact remains unclear as of this writing. According to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a "significant" portion of the Russian armored column that rolled in last night was shot up by Ukrainian artillery, apparently prompting Britain to summon the Russian ambassador in London. I don’t care what Rasmussen will choose to call this: The word for it is war.

Note how well-scripted the entire convoy farce has been thus far. I wrote earlier this week that these white trucks, which at one point were flying Red Cross flags, were going to furnish a pretext for some kind of border skirmish or provocation that would allow Russia to declare that it had no other choice but to attack Ukraine.

Probably because they had nothing better to do, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) issued a pro forma denial and claimed that, quite the opposite, owing to ongoing shelling from Ukraine, Russian FSB units — presumably backed up by armored personnel carriers and trucks — were beefing up on their side of the border. This was all necessary and proper, you see, in order to protect against what an FSB spokesperson called "the infiltration of armed people into Russian territory."

But back to last night’s adventures. Oliphant and Walker were at the border covering the much-discussed convoy of around 280 white-painted Kamaz military trucks which, after changing routes and destination points, finally alighted in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in the Rostov region of Russia, from which they intend to enter Ukraine via the Izvarino border crossing. This is not where Ukraine expected to receive the convoy (it had troops waiting in Kharkiv), nor is it under Ukrainian control any longer. Izvarino was used by Russia to transport the Buk anti-aircraft missile system with which separatists are said to have shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last month.

Moscow insists that this is a purely "humanitarian" convoy, coordinated with both Kiev and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The truck crews evidently offered to display their wares to curious journalists; photos of flatbeds full with grain, water, and the like have circulated online — although a lot of the trucks appeared to be almost empty. Meanwhile, the ICRC, which successfully handled the delivery of Ukrainian humanitarian aid to Lugansk today, tweeted that Kiev and Moscow must "agree on inspection and clearance procedures and confirm strictly humanitarian nature of cargo." Yet news reports have suggested that the relief organization may have worked out a deal whereby the trucks will first be inspected by Ukrainian border guards and customs officials, and then driven in by a single Russian per vehicle who will be accompanied by an ICRC employee. (That said, we still don’t know who’s actually behind the wheels of these trucks, civilians or dressed-down soldiers.)

Also, in accordance with ICRC policy, Laurent Corbaz, the director of operations in Europe, said that there is to be no Russian military escort.

Which is probably agreeable to the Kremlin because the escort has gotten a head start on the aid anyway. Yesterday, nine Russian tanks were recorded rolling along the H21 highway in Donetsk, deep inside separatist-held Ukraine. Moreover, helicopters, military vehicles (some of them marked with the emblem of "peacekeeping forces"), self-propelled guns, the 9K22 Tunguska anti-aircraft system, and what looks to be radar components for more advanced surface-to-air weapons (such as the Buk), were all identified by journalists and plenty of Russian observers moving alongside or above the aid convoy while it rolled from Moscow to the border. The Estonian newspaper Postimees also published photographs of Russian BMD-2s lining up along the M4 highway, about 6 miles from the Izvarino border crossing. This is the infantry fighting vehicle used to great effect by the Russian Airborne forces (VDV) — camouflaged as the now-infamous "little green men" — in the March seizure of Crimea.

By now, Putin isn’t even trying to make his motives difficult to discern. Without telling anyone, he sent a convoy said to be loaded with baby food, sleeping bags, and grain to the Ukrainian border. Then he dispatched dozens of military vehicles across that border to heighten tensions or lay the groundwork for some kind of confrontation.

The second act of  this stage play was never much of a cliffhanger: Now Putin is saying that his peaceful, humanitarian relief efforts are being hampered by wanton and outrageous acts of violence by the fascist junta in Kiev. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement: "We draw 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." And here’s the Kremlin propaganda mouthpiece RT with a headline that helpfully offers an ex post facto justification for Russian invasion under the masquerade of news: "BREAKING: Aid convoy to Ukraine faces disruption, may be attacked — Russia."

So why all this now? Well, the separatists have been getting battered in the last few weeks, losing much of the ground they had carved out for their prospective "Novorossiya," a restored empire on the basis of ingathered Russian lands. (And where they have been winning, it’s been directly correlated to evidence of renewed Russian resupplies of weaponry.) There has also been much plotting and politicking within the separatist leadership of late, which could just be business as usual for an inscrutable and self-cannibalizing movement, or signs that a Soviet-style purge is underway at the behest of Moscow Center. 

Yesterday, for instance, Col. Igor Strelkov, the Russian military intelligence official-cum-"Defense Minister" of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk (DPR), who had earlier in the week been reported seriously wounded in battle by Russian state media — which was then denied by separatist channels — resigned from his position. Or rather, Alexander Borodai, the now ex-prime minister of the DPR, informed LifeNews, a TV station linked to Russian intelligence, that Strelkov was "fine" but was being replaced with a new defense minister who happens to be nicknamed "Tsar." It later emerged that Tsar’s real name is Vladimir Kononov, who’s an ethnic Russian from Lugansk who’s been fighting against Kiev since April. Borodai himself had been replaced days ago with Alexander Zakharchenko, a native of the Donbass region, yet still retains the title of "vice premier" of the DPR. Not that Strelkov was entirely removed from the ranks. He has now been put forward as a candidate for chief of the DPR’s general staff, a position the DPR "Supreme Council" must vote on. 

What’s noteworthy about these portfolio swaps in the separatist government is that the two biggest demotions have affected those with ties to the ultra-religious Orthodox Russian billionaire Konstantin Malofeev, who was recently sanctioned by the European Union and Canada (but not the United States) for his role in financing the insurgency.

Malofeev is the founder of private equity firm Marshall Capital and a major proponent of holy war to conquer Ukraine; he has credited Russia’s annexation of Crimea as "God’s will" and blamed Kiev and Washington for the MH17 destruction. But more famously, he also once employed Borodai as his public relations consultant, as Malofeev freely admits. There have also been rumors that he employed Strelkov as his former head of security at Marshall Capital, a claim Malofeev denied to Russian Forbes, claiming that there is no security detail at the investment company to begin with. Independent Russian journalist Oleg Kashin also doesn’t believe that this employment story withstands scrutiny and points out that the rumor got started after an anonymous party hacked and leaked a tranche of Strelkov’s personal emails, one of them showing him boasting of his supposed affiliation to the billionaire. Strelkov’s penchant for self-dramatization precedes him: He is, after all, a historical war re-enactor.

But what may be more credible evidence of a direct link to Malofeev is that, according to intercepts released by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), Strelkov informed one "Konstantin Valerievich" (the second is Malofeev’s patronymic) about an ambush attack on "three VIP cars" in the early phase of the insurgency, and the Konstantin caller identified the main victim as the head of the Ukrainian antiterrorist center.

As I reported earlier, owing to tensions between and among different separatist factions — and also how these tensions were being manifest among ultranationalist invasion proponents inside Russia — there was every indication the founding fathers of irredentism in Ukraine were cruising for a bruising. If Putin had been looking to professionalize or nativize his proxies, then the MH17 fiasco would have made clear the urgency of doing so. Again, it bears mentioning that Zakharchenko and Kononov are Ukrainian; Borodai and Strelkov are Russian.

So the foreigners have now retired (or been retired), just as Russia nakedly dispatches columns of armored vehicles into Ukraine, and stages a piece of pseudo-humanitarian theater to legitimate a more open form of warfare. This is win-win for Putin: If Ukraine declares war on Russia, he gets to ride in to save his faltering rebellion. If it doesn’t, he keeps waging deniable "incursions" to send the rebels heavy machinery.

There’s a Russian chess term that explains what’s happening: mnogohodovka. It means making multiple moves at once. As ever, Putin is counting on his enemies not realizing this, and being multiple moves behind him.