Feelings are running high about Russia’s campaign of pressure and destabilization in Ukraine. And perhaps not surprisingly foreign journalists and pundits sympathetic to Kyiv are eager to pounce on anything which appears to offer proof about the much-discussed but surprisingly elusive direct Russian role. As a result, sometimes pictorial or video evidence is being taken at face value when it needed a little more cautious scrutiny: witness the video purportedly of Russian soldiers in Ukraine being blocked by plucky Ukrainians, which turned out to be Ukrainian troops being harangued by ethnic Russian militants. (The uniforms were a give-away then.)
The latest “smoking gun” is a video in which a man in Russian camouflage introduces himself to the defecting Horlivka police as a lt. colonel in the Russian army and introduces them to their new chief. So far, so straightforwardly damning. However, while this may appear to the holy grail of proof, I’m afraid that I think it ought to be taken with some caution.
1. The soldier does indeed wear appropriate Russian camo, but–and I know here I sound like I am channeling Putin’s disingenuous comments when challenged about the “little green men” in the Crimea–that’s no great feat. I could pop to my local voentorg store and pick up the same. He has none of the other accouterments of soldierly kit than one might expect, but this is not in itself vastly significant as it is not a combat situation. On the other hand, his cap is definitely not military issue; why is such a senior officer not at least wearing his issue camouflage baseball cap instead of something looking pretty civilian to me?
2. He presents has passport as “proof” of his status, even though it does nothing of the sort. All his passport can say is that he is a Russian: it would be like my presenting my passport to prove that I was a professor. Why is he not showing his military ID? Indeed, given the Russian emphasis on at least the appearance of punctiliousness, why not some rubber-stamped document from the Horlivka “mayor” confirming his authority?
This is potential political dynamite, and a relatively senior Russian officer trusted enough to be deployed in Ukraine as a kind of proconsul would presumably have some political savvy. So why is he allowing himself to be videoed doing this, as the filming doesn’t look as if it was covert?
I do not doubt that there are Russian government agents and covert operators in the field in eastern Ukraine, but I am unconvinced this guy is one of them. If I had to guess, I’d say that if he really is a lt. colonel, it’s in the reserve and he is just one of the growing number of Russian “war tourists” that Moscow is happy to encourage, without specifically directing, who’s just throwing his weight around in a complex and confusing situation. This is, after all, the nature of the current messy, semi-unguided ‘Great Game II’-Moscow can to a degree simply rely on chaos and autonomous actors, reserving direct action for crucial moments, while individuals can seize the moment and find themselves in unexpectedly important positions. (The Man Who Would Be King, anyone?)
This article was originally posted in In Moscow’s Shadows.