MOSCOW — When Crimea broke away from Ukraine, after the uprising in Kyiv that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia denied sending soldiers and weapons to boost the secessionist forces. Now the Kremlin is trying the same tactic in the Russian-leaning areas of southeastern Ukraine.
Video of Ukraine rebels jump-starting an old tank atop a World War II monument seemed to symbolize to the world their shortage of weapons.
On June 4, President Vladimir Putin told a French interviewer that American officials were lying when they accused Russia of sending men and materiel to Ukraine’s secessionists.
“There are no armed forces, no Russian ‘instructors’ in southeastern Ukraine," he said. "And there never were any.”
He then challenged Washington to show proof.
Despite his disavowal, videos surfaced on YouTube last week of three modern T-64 tanks - clanking through the streets of rebel-controlled Donetsk.
Then, NATO released satellite photos indicating that the tanks came from southern Russia as part of a larger weapons convoy that included rocket launchers.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow military analyst, says the Kremlin sent the tanks to pick up the spirits of rebels squeezed by a Ukrainian Army offensive.
“These tanks would be, a powerful morale booster. So they were paraded, most likely, not for Western consumption but for local consumption,” said Felgenhauer.
Rebel fighters are increasingly surrounded by Ukrainian army troops, and this week, rebel militia leader Igor Strelkov urgently appealed to Moscow for more Russian arms. Other rebel leaders went to Moscow and appealed in person.
In Moscow, Sergei Markov, an influential nationalist thinker, warned that Moscow needs Ukraine’s Donbass region as a safety buffer between Russia and the West.
"Russia can't give up the Donbass," he said, "because the next blow will be against Russia."
Markov warned of security consequences if Russia allowed a pro-West government to survive in Kyiv. He predicted that in 2017, “a NATO-Ukrainian army will invade Russia through Crimea."
Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, is proposing a unilateral cease-fire. But first, his soldiers are trying to shut off Russian arms shipments by closing Ukraine’s 2,000-kilometer land border with Russia.
On the other side of the border, however, Russia is rebuilding its military strength. Felgenhauer says the goal is to give Russia the option of a cross-border offensive in July or August.
“If there is a threat the rebellion will collapse, Russia may move in, in force,” said Felgenhauer.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the day after Russia stopped selling gas to Ukraine, there was an explosion on a buried pipeline that exports gas to Europe. Ukrainian authorities say the blast might have been an act of terrorism aimed at undermining Ukraine's reputation as a reliable conduit for energy supplies.