Ukraine news: what's happening on the ground after MH17 crash?

Jul 24, 2014

Fighting continues, as analysts consider Putin's next move after the downing of Malaysia Airlines plane


Fighting continues in the rebel-held territories of eastern Ukraine, just a week after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was allegedly shot down by pro-Russian separatists. More than 1,000 lives are believed to have been lost since fighting broke out in the region in April. After the MH17 disaster, what will Putin and the rebels do next?

What's happening on the ground?

Yesterday, Kiev said two Su-25 fighters had been blown up by surface-to-air missiles from the Russian side of the border, bringing the count of downed planes to 15. The pilots of the fighter jets ejected safely, but at least 16 people reportedly died in fighting between government forces and separatists in Donetsk. Rebel commanders said fighters had pulled back from the outskirts of Donetsk but were prepared to defend their positions.

What military hardware do the rebels have?

According to US intelligence officials, equipment held by the rebels includes dozens of T-64 battle tanks, Grad rocket launchers, 2S9 Nona self-propelled guns, artillery, BMP-2 infantry combat vehicles with automatic cannons, armoured troop carriers, semi-automatic weapons and sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, reports the Financial Times.

Is it all from Russia?

The Kremlin has rejected Western accusations that it has been supplying the rebels with military hardware. Some equipment has been captured from Ukrainian forces but military experts say this only accounts for a small number of arms. Much of it "tallies with models known to be part of Russia's mothballed armoury of weapons", says the FT. According to Nato, Russia was smuggling ever-larger amounts of arms into eastern Ukraine in the months leading-up to the MH17 disaster, with dozens of vehicles coming in with armament supplies in any given week.

Who's in charge of the rebels?

The prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic is Alexander Borodai, a Russian citizen from Moscow and alleged to be an operative for GRU, Russia's military intelligence. Russian media reports link him to FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service. Igor Girkin, commonly known as Igor Strelkov, which loosely translates as 'rifleman', is seen as the rebels' military commander-in-chief. Also a Russian citizen, he has served in Chechnya, Serbia and Trans-Dniester in the Russian military. The EU believes he works for the GRU and has placed him under sanctions. Rebels in Luhansk also proclaimed the creation of an independent territory in late April. Their prime minister is Marat Bashirov, a Russian lobbyist and former assistant to the chairman of the Russia's Federation Council's Committee on Foreign Affairs.

What will Putin do next?

Putin now faces the dilemma of continuing to support the separatist insurgency in the face of international outrage or cutting the rebels off and allowing them to be defeated by Kiev, says The Guardian. Some analysts fear he might press ahead with an invasion of eastern Ukraine under the guise of a peacekeeping operation. "You would think that this disastrous result would wake up Russian officials and make them see this was even more of a loser than they thought. But Putin doesn't like to be put in a corner. He's very humiliation-conscious," says Stephen Sestanovich, a former US ambassador to Moscow now at Columbia University. "And doesn't like to feel he's backed down."

Meanwhile, Roger Boyes in The Times suggests that Putin might change tactics and support Ukraine in signing up to the European free trade zone – the rejection of which initially triggered protests in Kiev last year. Boyes points out that while Poland is booming thanks to its membership of the EU, Ukraine is struggling to avoid bankruptcy. Putin in thinking again, says Boyes. "The best thing that could happen to the Russians of eastern Ukraine would be a bigger and guaranteed slice of a more prosperous country. A Ukraine in which the EU would pick up most of the bills," he says. "A Ukraine that could be subverted not by gunmen, but by Russian-run businesses."

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