After the West’s Retreat on Sanctions: Putin, Tanks & Missiles Escalate the War on Ukraine

Kyiv Government and Local Residents Report New Tanks From Russia Entering the Fight

A week after the European Union backed away from its vow to impose broad economic sanctions on Russia over the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, the government of President Vladimir Putin has intensified the assault. Ukraine’s government and independent reports say Russia has sent as many as 100 military or armored vehicles into Ukraine. Russia has deployed its army officers directly in the fighting, Ukraine says, and a high-altitude rocket attack today on a Ukrainian military transport reflects the introduction of either more potent missiles or direct Russian force into the war.

The Kremlin’s amplified role, effectively permitted by the West’s retreat on sanctions, underscores the urgency for the West of imposing broader measures, notably as part of the meeting Wednesday (July 16) of EU leaders, Atlantic Council analysts say.

The escalation comes nine days after a re-organized Ukrainian military offensive re-captured Slaviansk, the northern headquarters of the Russian-backed separatist militias, and drove the militias into the southern half of the Donbas region. “Putin is seeing the gradual collapse of the proxy insurgency and is trying to halt the impressive Ukrainian gains by throwing more professionals and high-grade weapons into the breach,” said Adrian Karatnycky, an Atlantic Council senior fellow. Putin “is desperate to make sure there is a large zone of instability.”

The United States and the EU have sanctioned scores of individuals who have been instrumental in this year’s Russian attacks on Ukraine – notably, members of Putin’s inner circle, Russian legislators, leaders of the proxy forces in Ukraine – and a few Russian companies. Those limited sanctions have had significant secondary effects in Russia’s economy as investors have backed away from the country. But EU governments have hesitated to apply the broader sanctions – against entire sectors of Russia’s economy – that they vowed to impose by the end of June if Putin did not stop making war on Ukraine. And the US government, hoping to build a Western consensus, has delayed imposing sanctions of its own, its officials last week told a Senate committee.

John Herbst: The Consequences of Hesitation

“On June 30, the EU blinked over imposing the sanctions that the West threatened if Putin failed to stop the flow of fighters and weapons into Ukraine,” said John Herbst, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine. “The consequences of that hesitation are already evident in what are credible reports of armor and military vehicles crossing into Ukraine from Russia. Last month’s incident involved ten T-64 tanks and other vehicles, but this time it appears to involve something like 100 armored vehicles – a dangerous increase in scale.”

According to Herbst: “By having failed to act at all on June 30, the West has given Putin a dangerous new degree of tactical flexibility. If the EU, feeling hesitant about imposing full-on sectoral sanctions, had fired a serious warning shot – say, halting all transactions in the West of a single, major Russian bank – Mr. Putin would have understood that his continuing intervention in Ukraine was dangerous for his economy.  He would have understood that continuing and especially increasing the supply of military equipment and fighters would be costly. Instead, the lesson is that there is no cost, save for some annoying Western nagging, to his aggression.”

A Dangerous Escalation

The escalation in both the military and the political conflict between Russia and Ukraine has included these events in recent days:

  • A high-altitude anti-aircraft attack today suggests new weapons or Russian forces are in the fight. Ukraine’s defense minister, Valeriy Heletey, said a Ukrainian military Antonov 26 transport plane was hit by a missile at an altitude of 21,300 feet (6,500 meters), above the range of the shoulder-fired missiles known to be in the hands of the separatist rebels. Kyiv suspects that the rocket may have been fired from Russia, he said.
  • Ukraine says today that Russian officers have joined directly in the fighting. A statement posted today on the website of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says that “information has been confirmed of the participation of Russian officers in military operations against Ukrainian forces.” The statement – the first time that Ukraine has made such an assertion – gave no details.
  • Russia has sent about 100 military vehicles, including tanks and other armored weaponry, into Ukraine, Poroshenko told European Council President Herman Van Rompuy on Sunday. The Ukraine presidential website said Poroshenko asked that the council’s meeting on Wednesday include a discussion of “the illegal crossing of the Russian-Ukrainian border by heavy military equipment and an attack by Russian soldiers on the positions of Ukrainian servicemen.” Ukraine’s military said the border crossing had included 100 armored vehicles and trucks carrying reinforcements for the separatist militias. Independent Ukrainian news media have reported sightings of those armored columns by residents and civil society groups in southeast Ukraine.
  • A death on the Russian side of the contested border has led Moscow to promise an unspecified “answer.” The escalation has included heavy fighting around Ukrainian border control posts that Ukraine’s military said it seized back from the separatists last week – including one crossing about thirty miles (fifty kilometers) southeast of the Ukrainian provincial capital of Luhansk. That crossing sits in an open field between the Ukrainian town of Izvarino (or Izvaryne) and the Russian town of Donetsk (the same name as that of the main Ukrainian city in the conflict). Russia said last week that a shell from the fight over the crossing point landed in Donetsk, killing a resident. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Grigory Kasarin, said the reported incident “won’t go unanswered,” although Moscow has not said how it will respond. Ukraine’s defense ministry spokesman said said today the shell had been fired by the separatists, rather than its own army. And a Russian official in Moscow said seven more shells had fallen in Russian territory.
  • Fighting has intensified around the city of Luhansk. Both sides in the war, and independent media, have reported a spike in fighting around Luhansk, the easternmost Ukrainian provincial capital, which lies less than twenty miles (thirty-two kilometers) from Russia’s border. Ukrainian officials say their plan with large cities such as Luhansk is to surround the militants sheltering there, but not to attack the cities directly lest urban street fighting cause massive civilian casualties.

James Rupert is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: Fighters of the Russian-backed Vostok Battalion ride on an armored vehicle in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 10. Ukraine’s government said Sunday that as many as 100 armored vehicles, tanks and trucks had entered Ukraine from Russia to join the war over southeast Ukraine’s Donbas region. PHOTO: REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev