As pro-Russian rebels expand their insurrection in eastern Ukraine into new territory, and edge ever closer to Crimea, Russia has been sending troops and weapons across the border to bolster what Western and Ukrainian officials have called “a stealth invasion.”
Armored troops and heavy weaponry including tanks and rocket launchers reportedly crossed the border into Southern Ukraine Monday, Aug. 25. This was the third known movement of troops and weapons across the border from Russia and into the new front along the border this week. The already weak Ukrainian forces appeared to be in retreat, with some journalists describing scenes of abandoned vehicles and ammunition.
Pro-Russian rebels move swiftly, head for Crimea
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, the 5,000 Ukrainian troops still in the area have been surrounded by rebels southeast of Donetsk near the border, in towns including Amrovsiivka, Uspenka, Kuteinkove, Starobesheve and Blahodatne (see map).
Having taken the town of Novoazovsk, on the Sea of Azov, Thursday, Aug. 28, the separatists were picking up speed and angling for Mariupol, where there are reports of shelling in residential areas. The pro-Russian fighters already control Starchenkove and Volodarske, northwest of Mariupol and Volnovakha on the Donetsk-Mariupol Highway. Heavy battles also erupted at Donetsk airport.
The rebel attack has been swift, with a surprising shift to the north into Zaporizhia Province, which borders Donetsk and is on the road to Crimea.
Zlatoustivka, Krasna Polyana, Chubarivka and Hulaipole all fell over like skittles as the rebels surged into the province. Rebel-controlled towns inside Zaporizhia now include Osypenko and Berdansk on the coastal motorway, with heavy fighting ongoing in Urzuf and Novopetrika.
The separatists are strongly positioned an hour away from Melitopol, a city often called the “gateway to Crimea” In peaceful summers, tourist traffic through this city is heavy as motorists pass through on their way to the Black Sea resorts.
As they close in on the city of Zaporizhia itself, they seem to be on the cusp of capturing the entire province of Kherson, and with it, a corridor of pro-Russian territory that reaches all the way to Crimea, the strategic Black Sea peninsula which Russia annexed earlier this year.
Moscow’s denials hold little water
While Moscow has repeatedly denied arming or covertly supporting the Ukrainian rebels, DEBKA Weekly’s eyes in the field report otherwise. Russian tanks regularly cross the border – although it is unclear if and how many soldiers are smuggled through. Claims by Ukraine’s security forces that earlier this week they captured ten Russian paratroopers in Dzerkalne, 25 miles south of Donetsk, now appear to be genuine, with the identifies of nine of the men confirmed.
Moscow was caught red-handed this time, but claimed it was an “accidental” mix-up during a routine patrol on the poorly marked boundary. Our sources suggest the paratroopers might not have been aware of the mission themselves, believing they were on a training course.
There are suspicions that Russia will divert Ukrainian forces from the besieged cities of Donetsk and Luhansk to the new front, alongside rumors that a considerable number of Russian troops have been fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas Basin for a week or two.
Ninety-two soldiers wounded in Ukraine are currently being treated at a military hospital in St Petersburg. Russian soldiers killed in action are being buried in Rostov Province, but reporters who attempted to investigate the deaths were warned off the story. Their relatives refused to talk to the media, calling the issue classified.
Troop movements recall Crimea annexation
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has demanded an explanation from Russia's President Vladimir Putin about the reported incursion. The US said it suspected a Russian-led counteroffensive was in progress, while Russia, which has rebuffed suggestions that it is aiding the insurgents, refused to acknowledge any troop movements at all.
But Moscow has demonstrated that Putin will not stand for a rebel defeat. The loss of the largely Russian-speaking eastern section of Ukraine would be a major blow to his prestige and exacerbate his growing discord with the US and Europe.
The Ukraine separatist blitzkrieg recalls Germany’s rapid advance through Europe in World War II, and summons up less distant memories of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, where pro-Putin forces rapidly spread out in the peninsula ahead of its annexation. At the time there were reports, denied then, too, by Russia, that Moscow was arming and egging on the local pro-Russian fighters.
This time around, the separatists started out with some 20,000 troops. A three to fourfold increase in their numbers, apparently out of the blue, would be explained by a Russian helping hand to its to the west.