The shaky month and half ceasefire in Ukraine seems to be breaking down amid a mounting daily death toll over the past week and reports of Russian "little green men" and soldiers crossing the border into the disputed eastern provinces.
Nato reported that columns of Russian tanks, artillery and combat troops have been entering Ukraine over the past two days. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) followed up on November 11 with a report of a convoy of 43 unmarked military trucks moving toward eastern Ukraine and claimed on November 12 that "little green men" or combat soldiers in uniforms with no insignia, were entering Ukraine over the border with Russia.
Speaking in Sofia on November 12, Nato commander US General Philip Breedlove said: "We do not have a good picture at this time of how many. We agree that there are multiple columns that we have seen," reported RFE/RL.
The spokesman for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, Michael Bociurkiw, added on November 12 that monitors near Donetsk had observed 126 unmarked military vehicles since November 8. "By unmarked, I mean no license plates. We also mean that the men inside these vehicles have no insignia on their uniforms. But they're towing very heavy equipment, and we're talking about multiple rocket launchers, we're talking about 126-milimeter howitzer guns. This is not what one expects after the signing of the Minsk accords," Bociurkiw told RFE/RL.
Neither organisation released any photos or other evidence of these claims. However, social media was rife with pictures of Russian tanks on the move and trucks towing howitzers and Katyusha rocket launchers, which it was claimed, are on their way to Donbass. It is not possible to independently confirm these claims. Other reports stated that up to 40,000 Russian troops have been massing on the border.
Russia's Defence Ministry hotly denied any of Russia's military were in Ukraine, nor ever have been. Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov told journalists the "rumours" of alleged Russian military presence in Ukraine "are not backed by any facts. We have already stopped paying attention to these baseless allegations,” he said on November12.
While the situation remains very unclear, it appears that the fighting has escalated and that both the Ukrainian and Russian regular army have re-entered the fight.
A fragile ceasefire agreed on September 5 at a summit in Minsk forced both Russia and Ukraine withdraw their regular army troops, but that left the militias both sides have been using to fight as proxies in place. The level of violence died down, but about 10 people were still being killed a day since the start of the ceasefire. According to reports, fighting around the Donetsk airport remains particularly fierce.
However, the death toll climbed alarmingly earlier this week when reports of 200 fighters being killed in Donetsk emerged. It seems there was an assault on the city in an effort to recapture it, which now seems to have provoked a response from Russia to ensure the battle lines in what is rapidly becoming a frozen conflict don’t move.
However, it is not clear who has started the offensive. In Kyiv, the newly appointed Ukrainian Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak said on November 11 that Ukrainian government forces are redeploying in preparation for a possible offensive by pro-Russian separatists. This followed reports that pro-separatists rebels were beefing up their positions, especially around the Donetsk region port city of Mariupol, in preparation for a possible offensive. Separately on November 12 an AFP correspondent said mortar shells were being fired from an area near the Donetsk city centre toward government-held positions around Donetsk's international airport.
Another possibility is that Russia is making a push to capture the port of Mariupol that was the scene of heavy fighting in the run up to the Minsk summit. Reports emerged this week that Russia was having trouble supplying the Crimea as winter closes in and that the obvious solution would be to create a land bridge linking Russia's mainland with the peninsular. This would run through Mariupol, which currently remains under the control of the government in Kyiv.
If regular army units have entered the fight on both sides then that could spell the end to even the pro forma claims by both Kyiv and Moscow that the ceasefire is holding, despite the obvious evidence that the militias have carried on shelling each other since the Minsk summit.
It would also open the way for more sanctions on Russia. This week talk that the sanctions could be scaled back was quickly scotched by EU officials, who said the fate of sanctions rested on what happens on the ground in Eastern Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
said on November 11 that further economic sanctions against Russia are not planned, but she left the door open to expanding the sanctions if the military situation deteriorates.
The escalation of fighting in the last days has also provoked a rebuke from the White House, but no action. When pressed by The Washington Times for an explanation of the consequences Russia might face if the ceasefire fails, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters that “we and our allies and partners would be prepared to broaden and deepen existing sanctions". Psaki added that Merkel had referred to an “openness to adding people or entities” to the sanctions and said, “so that’s really what we’d be talking about".
EU foreign ministers are due to discuss sanctions next week.