US intelligence sources are claiming that Russia has actually stepped up its material support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, including heavier rocket systems. I suspect these may the BM-27 Uragan (‘Hurricane’) systems, the very kind that Moscow has been criticising Kyiv for using in recent days. This is a truck-mounted multiple-tube rocket launcher system akin to the previously-used BM-21 Grad on steroids, able to ripple-fire its 16 220mm rockets in 20 seconds. As such, it represents a substantial upgrade to rebel firepower.
A few quick observations.
1. OK, so maybe Putin won’t be backing away from the rebels…but it may be the storm before the calm. A willingness to supply heavy hardware, coupled with the uncompromising rhetoric from the Kremlin, does suggest that Putin has chosen not to back away from his adventure in eastern Ukraine. However, it’s not impossible that the hope is that allowing the rebels to give Kyiv’s forces a bloody nose will allow Moscow to negotiate some terms for a ‘peace with honour’ extrication from the mess on stronger terms, given that at present, between the seizure of Slovyansk and the moral charge provided by MH17, the Ukrainian government is in unyielding mood. This can be disastrous (witness Russia clinging on in WW1 in the hope that “next battle” would provide one such victory), but can work.
2. The government forces outnumber the rebels, but their key advantages are airpower and long-range artillery. With systems such as the now-infamous Buk and the BM-27, Moscow is clearly trying to neutralise them (the BM-27 is a useful counterbattery weapon, able to silence Ukrainian guns). The idea is presumably to put Kyiv into the situation of facing a nasty–and higher-casualty–old-fashioned close-quarters battle in Donetsk if it wants to wipe out the rebels, hoping that Poroshenko won’t be willing to accept the costs. (Though I suspect he would, if need be.)
3. This would make the rebels more dependent on Moscow. Larger, higher-tech kit like the BM-27 needs maintenance, spare parts, etc. They also need ample ammunition to be effective, and unlike assault rifle rounds, these aren’t widely available in looted stockpiles and the black market. This gives Moscow more potential authority over the rebels, and also embeds the Russians more deeply in the fight.