WASHINGTON, DC -- Moscow won’t admit it, but Russia is at war with Ukraine. It’s hard to draw any other conclusion from reports that Russian regular forces have moved into eastern Ukraine and are attacking Ukrainian military units amid a flare-up of violence this past week.
New reports indicate that eight civilians were killed after a mortar shell fell in Donetsk, mere hours after the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France agreed on a “buffer zone” to cut down on the violence.
All the while, Russia continues to insist that separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk are independent of Russian control and military support.
But Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has made clear how ludicrous this assertion is: “Tanks, GRAD multiple rocket systems, BUK and SMERCH systems, radio electronic intelligence systems are not sold at local Donetsk street markets. Only the Russian army and Defense Ministry have them.”
So far, Russian assistance to the separatists has mostly taken the form of advanced military equipment and paramilitary forces to advise and assist local rebels.
But now, Russia is reported to have moved two battalions of regular troops across the border, with three more battalions of motorized infantry and an artillery division on the way.
That’s translates into potentially a thousand soldiers.
The BUK system that Yatsenyuk mentions is the missile platform that shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine this past July, killing 298 innocent civilians.
Russia can continue to feign ignorance, but this constitutes the most dangerous, deeply irresponsible escalation of violence and tensions in Ukraine since a little-observed ceasefire was signed in September.
With his economy in shambles and increasingly politically isolated from West, Putin seems determined to bring Ukraine down with him.
We have a moral obligation, not to mention considerable political interests at stake, in ensuring that this does not happen and that Ukraine is allowed to chart a course of successful, peaceful, and prosperous development as an intact and independent country.
As I have written and spoken about before, Western leaders must continue to present a united and uncompromising front when it comes to Russia’s naked aggression and flagrant disregard for international law in Ukraine.
The current sanctions regime must be strictly maintained, and the list of sanctioned officials updated regularly to reflect the complicity of the Russian governing elite in perpetuating the conflict in Ukraine.
Western leaders such as French President Francois Hollande have suggested that sanctions on Russia should be eased if they agree to participate in constructive talks.
Hollande and those who share his views must be reminded that Russia has agreed to sit down at the negotiating table several times, with the resulting agreements having little effect on reality.
It goes without saying that by this point no competent Western leader should take the wily Vladimir Putin at his word.
The movement of Russian forces into Ukraine signals that the Kremlin is invested in this conflict and is willing to devote significant resources, not to mention take great risks, in pursuit of victory.
America and the West must be no less invested in achieving peace, defending sovereignty, and protecting international norms by refusing to allow Russia to achieve its aims in Ukraine.
By sending regular Russian army forces into Ukraine, Putin shows that he understands the importance of this fight.
We must ask the question: do our leaders understand this too?