The appearance of three mystery tanks in east Ukraine may be a serious escalation of the conflict (as Russia throws extra military hardware into the fray) or another one of those desperate attempts to prove a Russian presence. I honestly don’t know, but until we have more solid data, I hope people will be cautious about accepting the “they must be Russian tanks” line uncritically. I hope, but don;’t expect: even if some caution ends up buried in the text, the headlines are already taking it at face value that Russian tanks have rolled into Ukraine. But:
1. We’ve been here before. Remember the “Russian lieutenant colonel“? There have been many hurried assertions of direct Russian roles that ended up having to be retracted. Just for the record: of course there is a serious Russian role, both direct and indirect, but with the possible exception of the initial insertion of Vostok (which has since started “Ukrainianification”), it tends to be in the form of facilitating, arming, supporting, not directly intervening.
2. The evidence presented so far has been pretty thin. For example, NATO has released imagery with a strong implication that it points towards Russian involvement (as it contributes to the “effort to ensure Russia remains publicly accountable for its actions”), but the suggestions are based on:
i. That there were some Russian tanks near the border beforehand. OK, fair enough and I wouldn’t discount this, but apparently all the wizardry of NATO image interpretation still can’t say if they are the same T-64 tanks we’ve seen inside Ukraine. After all, given that the T-64 has actually been phased out of Russian service, that would be a big deal if they fielded some. If NATO can show that they were T-64s, then that to me really would be as close to real proof as we can get from such imagery.
ii. The tanks we’ve seen do not have Ukrainian markings. Sure, had they just defected or been stolen they’s presumably have markings, but that presumably was not the case. To add, as NATO does, that “this is consistent with Russian vehicles and equipment that were deployed to Crimea” is rather circumstantial.
iii. There are no Ukrainian armoured units in the east. The State Department spokesperson said “no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area.” OK, but not only do Ukrainian mechanised units also include tanks, there certainly are reserve stocks and depots for tanks awaiting modernisation or scrap. (The Malyshev Tank Works, for example, which produced T-64s, and now offers conversions, is in Kharkiv, north-eastern Ukraine.)
3. Why just three? If Moscow is wiling to up the ante–which it might well–then why in such a minimalist fashion, enough to alarm the West and give Poroshenko more leverage, but not enough to have a significant impact on the conflict? It is not that they lack stored weapons? Why not thirty? Or, better yet, why not artillery? Had the Ukrainian forces been on the ball, after all, they could have caught those tanks on the road with their Mi-24 helicopter gunships or, better yet, Su-25 ground attack aircraft and destroyed them in one raid: tanks can be phenomenally powerful used in the right way, but they are also strikingly fragile in other ways.
I am, I must stress, not stating definitively that these are not tanks the Russians dragged out of their reserve stocks and sent into Ukraine. All I am doing is issuing a plaintive and no doubt fruitless appeal that in these days of hyperspeed 24/7 news cycles, we should not assume that a press release from the White House (or the Kremlin) represents definitive proof…
PS: Testing the Waters? In the comments below, Malcolm Davis makes a valid point that the Russians could just be seeing what (if any) Western response the first intrusion draws. Maybe. But my sense is that Putin/the Russians actually tend to work the other way, to act fast and decisively (when they are going to act) in order to define the truths on the ground and then sit back and present the outside world with a fait accompli. Indeed, this predates Putin: think of the 1999 “Pristina Dash.” Dribbling in a few tanks here and maybe a few more there actually allows the West (and Kyiv) to be able to construct some kind of meaningful response. And as I say above, three tanks accompanied by a single truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun (with no radar guidance or the like) and a truck or two of troops actually could have been very vulnerable. I think the Russians think like Heinz Guderian, whose rule of thumb was Nicht Kleckern sondern Klotzen! (Boot’ em, don’t spatter’ em!)…