GRAND RAPIDS — It’s unlikely a true tank battle will break out between Russia and Ukraine this week as tensions rise over Ukraine’s planned gas transit to Europe. But a closer look at where Russia and Ukraine meet, and what they’re like from the outside, suggests one week of daily propaganda could be enough to start World War III.
And while U.S. officials have been fretting over the danger of Russia, China and North Korea sparking off a major arms race in the Pacific, Canada, Sweden and NATO on Friday criticized what they called Russia’s unlawful military activity around a Trans-dnestrian cease-fire. Now Russia’s own government is telling Ukrainians not to believe Western reports of a peacekeeping force reaching the border. Russia has also stated outright it would defend Ukrainian sovereignty in all circumstances, something Ukraine has feared might have happened.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry tweeted Friday morning, “Cmdr. Litvinenko’s second command refers to the change of the status of Ukraine.” “The Ukraine now occupied by Russian forces” was then emblazoned across the top of a screenshot from Ukrainian Television.
Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Nicholson asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to clarify the ceasefire announcement, in which he said the eastern part of Ukraine had been called “annexed territory.” Nicholson also asked for OSCE monitoring of the Minsk ceasefire in northern Ukraine.
Ukrainian protesters on Kiev’s Maidan Square in 2014. Photograph: Alexander Sharif/AP
NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg warned Thursday that Russia is using “blatant and alarming disinformation” to break Ukraine’s unity with the West. He said such actions are not helping Ukraine stabilize itself as it attempts to pull itself free from the grip of warring factions in the east and vice versa.
Related: Small war in Ukraine? Tensions flare as country readies for gas import from Europe
Ukraine is a technically sovereign country, but it’s not exactly sending its military across the border. On Saturday, the day Ukraine is slated to receive its first shipment of gas from Europe, the government announced the staging of independent land, air and sea patrols to protect the Ukrainian border from Ukrainian citizens who might try to cross illegally.
Six small Ukrainian battalions, armed with pistols and portable anti-tank weapons called Grad, make up what is known as the “Volunteer Battalion.” President Petro Poroshenko has promised an amnesty to anyone willing to lay down arms, a force that numbers about 20,000. Poroshenko claims around 5,000 Ukrainians have volunteered to fight in the conflict so far.
That comes on top of the 2,000-strong National Guard that the government called into service in the past few days, and Ukraine’s long-standing units of volunteers who are trained and dispatched to Ukrainian combat zones every spring.
But there’s also the United States and its outposts in post-Soviet Ukraine, which run forward bases from where U.S. officers man cameras and intercept suspicious movements, and headquarters within the country’s regional parliament.
Perhaps we should expect more of the same. Since the beginning of the conflict, a Putin-supplied video showing three suicide bombers was passed around on Ukrainian television, and an episode of a pro-government TV news program showed Ukrainian mercenaries casually trashing a Ukrainian checkpoint.
The cease-fire remains barely in effect. On Friday, the Ukrainian government said 40 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed during the last seven days. Eight Russian soldiers were killed in Ukraine in that period, according to a Russian Defense Ministry official quoted by the Kommersant newspaper.
Even some Russian media is worried. At one point last week, Time magazine reported on the eerie coincidence of reports of militia clashes in Ukraine with news that Russia had fired an anti-aircraft missile at a Ukrainian plane at the same time Kiev was reporting the air strike against its army.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.