The US and Russia, while trading the blame for pushing Ukraine to the brink of civil war, are nonetheless tugging at the leashes of the two players in the field, each jockeying for advantage in the quadrilateral meeting of senior US, Russian, European, Ukrainian and UN officials scheduled to take place in Geneva Thursday, April 17, DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources report.
The five or six armored personnel carriers which rolled in the embattled town of Slavyanks with Russian flags Wednesday, April 16, turned out to be part of the Ukrainian military operation whose crews instead of cracking down on the pro-Russian militias joined them. According to some Western intelligence sources, a large number of regular Russian soldiers have crossed the border into Ukraine and they too are boosting the pro-Russian militias’ ranks. The Kiev government’s “anti-terror” operation in East Ukraine is accordingly breaking up. DEBKAfile reported earlier Wednesday:
Expectations of fruitful results from the meeting are low. But the fact that all the parties are talking offers Ukraine its last hope of escaping a bloody civil war. To this end, too, late-night phone calls are being exchanged among Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel.
So far no real shots, aside from a few warning rounds – have been fired between the Ukrainian “anti-terror” force dispatched to East Ukraine on Tuesday April 16 and pro-Russian separatist activists. But it is obvious to all sides that the situation is charged enough for an unforeseen spark to easily send the conflict spinning out of control.
The east Ukrainian separatists have been formed into pro-Russian militias with clandestine aid from Moscow in money and logistical support, such as material for checkpoints, though not weapons. They have seized police and government buildings in up to a dozen towns, centering on the Donetsk region near the Russian border.
This development brought US CIA chief John Brennan on a secret visit to Kiev over the April 12-13 weekend. He arranged for the Kiev government to mount a counter-operation. They put together an armed contingent made up of Ukrainian internal security SBU special forces and the Alpha Force, which is the special operations unit of the Ukrainian secret service-SZRU, as well as paratroops and police units. General Vasily Krutov was given command of the contingent.
By his operation, Kiev aimed to crack down on the pro-Russian militias and so demonstrate its authority over the country and not just the center of the capital Kiev. However the multiple components of this contingent betrayed the fact that neither the Ukrainian army nor all parts of the intelligence services respect and are willing to serve the provisional government.
Backed by promised funds and diplomatic cover from President Obama relayed by John Brennan, this motley contingent went into action Tuesday in two of the trouble spots – Slavyansk and Kramatorsk near Donetsk.
But DEBKAfile’s military sources report that notwithstanding the claims of 4-11 dead and dramatic footage taken in both places of exchanges of fire, flying jets and advancing tanks, nothing really changed on the ground.
The number of casualties was not confirmed, or which side they belonged to, and the tanks turned tail after heated debate with their pro-Russian brothers.
Neither was there any confirmed crackdown or seizure of arms in Slavyansk from the defiant pro-Russian militias and the recovery of the air base at Kramatorsk remains in doubt. The US attached importance to this air field as the key to a Russian troop landing in eastern Ukraine if this was decided in Moscow.
Indeed, Wednesday morning, April 16, the Ukrainian special units found themselves besieged in both Slavyansk and Kramatorsk by pro-Russian militias. When Gen. Krutov asked to speak with their leaders, the militiamen laughed and knocked off his cap before sending him running to his car.
It is now up to Washington and Moscow, which have been handling their allies in Ukraine by remote control, to decide on further steps, taking into consideration that they may push the situation over the edge into civil war. Their alternative is to leave the impasse on the ground in situ for the Geneva talks Thursday to try and resolve.
In the last resort, that decision is up to Obama and Putin – on the assumption that their proxies remain obedient.