The destruction of Malaysian Airways flight MH17 has finally galvanized Western European leaders into taking serious action against Moscow’s continued attempts to dominate or to destabilize Ukraine. However, despite the significant sanctions announced on July 29 by both Brussels and Washington, based on his track record so far Vladimir Putin is unlikely to back down any time soon. Instead, we can expect several more rounds of peaceful statements and gestures from Moscow, followed each time by further de facto escalation in support of the Russian-led separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The chronology provided below documents Putin’s now-familiar pattern of action, denial, apparent pullback, and further escalation. That pattern had already become obvious over the past several months to those who followed the Ukraine crisis systematically. But until the July 17 shoot-down of MH17 all too many journalists, commentators and political leaders, particularly those in Western Europe, seemed to be taken in by Moscow’s strategy of steadily escalating its aggression while trying to maintain “plausible deniability.” Others may instead have been cynically hiding behind this smokescreen so as to avoid implementing serious economic sanctions against Russia that might risk mutual pain.
Below is the is the chronology of Putin’s strategy of iterative deception. We have marked in brackets the elapsed time between key events to highlight the hypocrisy of Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Yanukovych’s Downfall; Putin’s Countermeasures
The crisis began last November when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych balked at signing a trade agreement with the EU, following heavy pressure from Moscow. He fled Kiev after three month of escalating popular protests in Kiev and western Ukraine. Then, only five days later, pro-Russian separatists (who Putin later admitted included anonymous Russian soldiers) began seizing military bases and official buildings in Crimea, quickly culminating in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Three weeks later, when Western protests against this annexation seemed to be subsiding, pro-Russian separatists began taking similar aggressive actions in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkiv.
November 21, 2013: Yanukovych backs off on agreement with EU at Vilnius Summit; protests begin immediately and grow larger with each passing week; Russian media systematically portray protesters as Western-instigated fascists
February 22, 2014: Yanukovych flees Ukraine; Maidan protesters take control of Kiev administrative buildings; an interim, pro-EU government is formed; Putin calls the new Kiev government fascist and illegitimate [3months]
February 27: Pro-Russian separatists seize their first official building in Crimea; with each passing day, new government buildings and bases are surrounded by pro-Russian separatists backed up by “little green men” (covert Russian troops) [5 days]
March 5: U.S and Europe prepare sanctions against Russia for its aggressive actions in Crimea; Russia continues to deny any direct involvement in supporting separatists; Ukraine’s military forces in Crimea crumble.
March 16: Self-appointed officials upheld by anonymous men with guns hold referendum on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and claim that 97% of voters wish to join Russia; Moscow promptly agrees to annex Crimea
March 20: U.S. and EU announce minor sanctions against Russia after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea [4 days]
March 31: Putin promises to withdraw most Russian troops from Ukrainian-Russian border (but fails to do so) [11 days]
April 7: Protesters occupy government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkiv, calling for referenda on independence for those three major regions and asking Russia to send “peacekeepers” to protect them [7 days]
Ukraine Fights Backs; Russia Escalates and Claims Historic Rights
A week after these separatist incursions, the Ukrainian military began military operations to counter the rebels who had occupied steadily increasing portions of Donetsk and Lugansk. In response, Russia increased its covert support for the pro-Russian separatists, sending military personnel and weapons across the Russian-Ukrainian border and continuing military training operations. Putin provided a historical “justification” for the separatist/irredentist cause by musing upon the 18th century Russian conquest of Novorossiya. At the same time, he continued to deny directly supporting the rebels and made a public show of refusing to annex the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk republics as a sign of his “goodwill” towards the West.
April 15: Start of Ukrainian “anti-terrorist” military operations against pro-Russian separatists in Lugansk and Donetsk; EU remains hesitant on applying increased sanctions on Russia despite mounting evidence of its direct backing for the separatists [ 8 days]
April 17: Putin launches his concept of the historic Novorossiya, providing an historical “justification” for Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine [2 days]
April 20: Pentagon sends 600 troops temporarily to Poland and Baltic States as a sign of reassurance to these NATO allies that they will be defended against Russian incursions like those in Ukraine
April 24: Russia begins new military exercises near its border with Ukraine in response to Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operations” [4 days]
April 26: Russian political operative Alexander Borodai, the self-declared political leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic cedes control of separatist fighters to Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin [alias: Ivan Strelkov] [2 days]
May 2: Clashes between the separatist minority and pro-unity majority in Odessa (part of Putin’s historic Novorossiya) leave at least 42 people dead; signs of agreement between U.S. and EU on additional sanctions begin to emerge
May 7: Putin calls on the separatists to postpone their secession vote and pulls back troops from Russian border; separatists promptly say they will disregard Putin [5 days]
May 11: Self-appointed pro-Russian separatist “governments” in Donetsk and Lugansk hold hastily-organized referenda, declare independence, and speak of joining Russia; referenda not recognized by Kiev nor the West [4 days]
May 15: Steelworkers oust pro-Russian separatists in Mariupol, signaling to Putin that local support for Russian annexation of eastern Ukraine is low
May 16: Russian citizen Alexander Borodai is formally appointed Prime Minister of Donetsk People’s Republic [5 days]
Putin’s May 24 statement that he would respect the outcome of Ukraine’s presidential election was taken by some as a turning point in the Ukraine crisis; many observers speculated that Putin had abandoned his bellicose intentions in eastern Ukraine. However, the day following the presidential elections, separatists launched an attack on the Donetsk airport, inflicting heavy casualties on the Ukrainian military. Several days of conflict ensued between Ukrainian government and rebel forces. To appease the West, Putin finally removed most Russian troops from Ukraine’s border.
May 24: Putin says he will respect the results of the next day’s Ukrainian election, despite previously having stated the opposite
May 25: Petro Poroshenko is elected as President by a strong majority on a reformist, pro-EU platform; seeks negotiations with Putin, hoping to end his support for separatists
May 26: Separatists attempt to take Donetsk airport; repelled by Kiev forces, with heavy casualties on both sides [1 day]
May 30: To placate the EU, Putin temporarily withdraws most Russian troops from Ukrainian-Russian border (after earlier broken promises to do so) [4 days]
New Separatist Offensive; Talk of a Peace Plan
Throughout June, pro-Russian separatists began to occupy more Ukrainian territory, buttressed by extensively using Russian military supplies and “volunteers;” Russia continued to deny that it was directly supporting the rebels and pushed for a cease fire and a “peace plan” while blaming the Ukrainian government for the conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk. Russia also cuts off gas to Ukraine to put economic pressure on the Kiev government.
June 4: Separatist rebels take two Ukrainian military bases in the eastern region of Lugansk and fighting continues near the rebel-held town of Sloviansk [5 days]
June 7: Petro Poroshenko sworn in as president of Ukraine
June 9: Foreign Ministry of Ukraine says that Russia and Ukraine have reached an understanding on the implementation of a cease fire and peace plan in the East.
June 12: Ukraine says three Russian tanks entered rebel areas in the east, along with other armaments; Russia denies the allegation [3 days]
June 14: Pro-Russian rebels shoot down a military transport plane and kill 49 Ukrainian troops, showing the sophistication of weaponry now possessed by the rebels; protesters in Kiev attack the Russian embassy
June 16: Russia cuts off all gas supplies to Ukraine, economically reinforcing pro-Russian separatist actions in eastern Ukraine [2 days]
June 23: Poroshenko declares a temporary ceasefire; rebels officially agree to it one day later; Russian premise for the cease-fire is to permit negotiations for a peaceful political settlement between separatists and Kiev government
Moscow Postures; Separatists Violate Ceasefire
Poroshenko’s ceasefire lasted only one day before it was violated by a separatist attack on a Ukrainian army helicopter. In order to distance himself from the rebel attacks and to stress Russia’s “commitment to peace,” Putin formally rescinds his parliamentary authorization to use the Russian military in eastern Ukraine. Poroshenko ends the ceasefire ten days after it is announced, citing continuing rebel aggressions.
June 24: Vladimir Putin rescinds power to use the Russian military in eastern Ukraine as a purported gesture of his commitment to a peaceful settlement; nine Ukrainian servicemen die the same day when rebels shoot down an army helicopter
June 27: The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, thus confirming an important step towards greater integration with Europe
June 28: Rebels release eight members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who had been detained since the end of May
June 30: Poroshenko ends unilateral ceasefire due to continued violations by pro-Russian separatists, resulting in numerous Ukrainian casualties and the strengthening of rebel positions.
Ukrainian Government Takes the Offensive
In the course of July, the Ukrainian government recaptures several key rebel-occupied towns, making heavy use of combat aircraft. Some Western commentators see these victories as a sign of imminent Ukrainian victory in the region. But Kiev starts reporting Ukrainian military planes being shot down from Russian territory, plus other signs of escalating Russian support for the separatists.
July 5: Rebels are pushed out of their strategic bastion of Sloviansk and retreat towards Kramatorsk; Ukrainian flag hoisted over the city council building, fostering optimism over potential for Ukrainian victory in Eastern Ukraine; pro-Russian rebels publicly criticize Putin for “lack of support”
July 14: Ukrainian military plane shot down at 21,000 feet; Ukraine government alleges that missile came from Russian territory since pro-Russian rebels did not have adequate weaponry to hit plane at such a high altitude [9 days]
July 15: Ukraine government and separatists blame one another over an airstrike in the Ukrainian town of Snizhne which killed at least 11 civilians
July 16: Obama warns Putin of further sanctions on Russia following continued violence in eastern Ukraine and mounting evidence that Moscow is feeding its escalation with heavier weaponry and other support
Malaysian Airlines Flight 17; Russian Denials, European Countermeasures
Faced with public outrage over the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with over 200 Europeans aboard, EU officials accelerated their discussions of harsher economic sanctions on Russia. Putin continued to deny responsibility for the downing of the flight, despite increased evidence that pro-Russian rebels shot the plane with a highly sophisticated SA-11 Russian anti-aircraft missile. The Ukrainian government continued its offensive and occupied more rebel territory. Poroshenko predicted a total Ukrainian victory within a month – as long as Russia did not send military troops across the border. Pro-Russian rebels continued to shoot down more Ukrainian fighters and obstructed access to the MH17 crash site in the critical early days for a potential investigation.
July 17: Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashes in eastern Ukraine killing 298 civilians, mostly Dutch and other Europeans and Australians; plane was downed by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile almost certainly supplied by and possibly manned by Russians; separatists at first claim they shot down a large Ukrainian military aircraft, then when the civilian nature of flight is discovered they deny guilt and blame Kiev; Moscow denies involvement
July 22:EU announces its intention to marginally expand sanctions on Moscow over its role in MH-17 attack, but fails to target most significant Russian industries
July 23: Two Ukrainian Air Force Sukhoi-25 fighters shot down by pro-Russian separatists; rebel forces retreat from the villages of Karlivka, Netailove and Pervomaiske west of Donetsk [1 day]
July 25: EU continues to announce plans for harder-hitting economic sanctions that target Russian state banks as well as Russia’s energy and defense sectors; Ukrainian government forces continue to push into Donetsk and Lugansk, although at the cost of hundreds of civilian lives
July 28: U.S. State Department releases photographic evidence of Russian artillery strikes into Ukraine;Russia denies authenticity of photographs; Russia bans milk and dairy product imports from Ukraine to place further economic pressure on the Kiev government
July 29: EU and U.S. impose harsher sanctions on Russia but do not target Russia’s natural gas exports; Russia remains defiant by asserting that international sanctions will only help the Russian economy become more self-reliant
As of July 31, nearly 1,200 persons had been killed in eastern Ukraine and nearly 3,500 wounded since the separatist movement began in April; over 140,000 Ukrainian refugees had fled to Russia, and over 101,000 Ukrainians were internally displaced. And the violence shows no signs of abating.