The Kiev government in Ukraine accused the Russian army of invading its eastern border on Wednesday, even though no media outlets reporting on the claims appeared able to independently verify the accusations.
Though it can routinely be difficult to verify facts inside a war zone, there has been a pattern of errant reporting—including a consistent deference to the U.S. government's narrative of events—in the western press when it comes to the crisis in Ukraine, especially regarding Russia's role.
According to Reuters:
Ukraine accused Russian forces of launching a new military incursion across its border on Wednesday, a day after the leaders of both countries agreed to work toward ending a separatist war in Ukraine's east.
The accusation, which could not be immediately verified, quickly dented any sense of cautious optimism from Tuesday's late-night talks between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko on resolving the five-month conflict.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said a group of Russian soldiers had crossed the border in armored infantry carriers and a truck and entered the eastern town of Amvrosiyivka, not far from where Ukraine detained 10 Russian soldiers on Monday.
Lysenko said that fighting in the towns of Horlivka and Ilovaysk to the north and east respectively had killed about 200 pro-Russian separatists and destroyed tanks and missile systems. He said 13 Ukrainian service personnel had been killed in the past 24 hours, and 36 had been wounded.
No comment was immediately available from the Russian Defense Ministry on the alleged incursion.
The New York Times reporting on the fighting Wednesday said that Ukraine and U.S. officials characterized the fighting as a "stealth invasion." Citing those officials, the newspaper reported that "tanks, artillery and infantry have crossed from Russia into an unbreached part of eastern Ukraine in recent days, attacking Ukrainian forces and causing panic and wholesale retreat not only in this small border town but also a wide section of territory[...]" However, even the reporting from the ground offered no concrete evidence to verify that the advance or shelling witnessed was, in fact, coming from Russian troops who crossed the international border.
In Washington, D.C., State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said evidence indicates that "a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway,” but offered journalists no concrete evidence to support the claims. Senior "American officials" reportedly showed the New York Times images of what they claimed were Russian artillery units inside Ukraine, but have yet to make such documents public.
NATO Threatens to Move East and Russia Responds
In separate but related developments that began on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the city of Minsk, Belarus in their first face-to-face meeting since Poroshenko was elected earlier this year. Meanwhile, as the meeting in Minsk was getting underway, the head of NATO took the opportunity to voice plans by the European alliance to expand its military footprint in the Baltics and other countries in eastern Europe.
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In comments made to European news outlets and published just ahead of Tuesday's meeting, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen—who has been consistently hawkish against Russia throughout the recent turmoil in Ukraine—said that a "permanent" and expanded military presence is the best way to counter Moscow and that such plans would be put forward at the upcoming NATO summit scheduled to take place in Cardiff, Wales next week.
As quoted by the Guardian newspaper, Rasmussen told the selected journalists:
We will adopt what we call a readiness action plan with the aim to be able to act swiftly in this completely new security environment in Europe. We have something already called the Nato response force whose purpose is to be able to be deployed rapidly if needed. Now it's our intention to develop what I would call a spearhead within that response force at very, very, high readiness.
In order to be able to provide such rapid reinforcements you also need some reception facilities in host nations. So it will involve the pre-positioning of supplies, of equipment, preparation of infrastructure, bases, headquarters. The bottom line is you will in the future see a more visible Nato presence in the east.
In an email to Common Dreams, Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University and an expert on Russian and Cold War history, characterized Rasmussen's comments—in the context of current events—as "reckless beyond reason."
The expansion of NATO bases in Poland or other Baltic states along the Russian border is one of the most strident and controversial topics when it comes to the re-emerging Cold War relationship between the U.S., European nations, and Russia. As the Moscow Times reported on Wednesday, "The move [by NATO] effectively returns the state of European security back to the Cold War era, when the collective defense ministry alliance that came into being in 1949 acted as a deterrent and main rival to the Warsaw Pact nations led by the Soviet Union." The newspaper continued:
Russia reacted to Rasmussen's statements by saying that NATO considers it a "hostile actor."
"Russia will react to NATO moves eastward with a view to ensure its security," Russia's permanent mission to NATO said on its Twitter account.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of Russia's ongoing large-scale military revamp program, said the threat posed by NATO's top official is serious.
"This is being said at the secretary-general level. They have probably already come up with some plan while moving NATO eastward," he said, Interfax reported Wednesday.
The Russian-based newspaper also interview Cold War experts—from "across the political spectrum"—who all agreed that the Kremlin's response to Rasmussen's promise to move NATO bases, troops, and weapons to the east was easily foreseen and likely the goal of the comments. Predictable or not, however, those who spoke to the times said the development significantly raises the stakes for regional conflict.
"The problem is that the Kremlin dissolved the Warsaw Pact alliance of its own accord and did not represent a threat to the West in the 1990s, while NATO recklessly started to move toward Moscow," Alexei Arbatov, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, told the Times.