“I can tell you outright and unequivocally that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told a live TV audience in April.
He was flat-out lying. Moscow has armed and directed the so-called “rebel forces” in eastern Ukraine and bolstered them with its own troops. Thousands of Russian troops are massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, possibly poised for a further invasion.
Yet Western leaders still won’t publicly challenge Putin’s lies.
“If you don’t call it by what it is, there is less pressure to confront the real issues,” John Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told me this week.
Indeed, European leaders still hope that Russia will finally abide by a ceasefire signed in February in Minsk, Belarus, which called for the removal of foreign troops from Ukraine, the pulling back of heavy weapons, and the disbanding of “illegal groups.” So far the accord has failed miserably. Why should anyone be surprised? Russia denies it sent troops or weapons into Ukraine or created the illegal groups that began the war.
The White House denounces Russian aggression in Ukraine – Vice President Joe Biden declared last week that the conflict is “a test for the West.” Yet President Barack Obama apparently still (fruitlessly) hopes for greater Russian cooperation on Iran or Syria, and shows little stomach for challenging Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry to meet Putin in Sochi last month, where Kerry reportedly showed him photos of Russian air defenses and other weapons in eastern Ukraine as proof the United States knew what he was up to. But Kerry didn’t make the photos public, and Russian officials dismissed the NATO evidence as misinformation. No surprise: The state-controlled press billed the Kerry visit as a capitulation.
Clearly, the Kremlin feels it can continue to destabilize Ukraine – and to deny that it is directing the war there. By refusing to confront those lies more directly, the West plays into the Kremlin’s hands.
Even without access to Western satellite photos, it is possible to pierce the fog of Kremlin denials. The Atlantic Council, an independent Washington think tank, has produced a report, called “Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine,” that uses publicly available sources to counter Russian propaganda. Using Google’s Street View, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, satellite photographs, Vkontakte (Russia’s Facebook), and Russian documents and media reports, it documents the role of Russian troops and weapons in Ukraine. It also contains interviews with Russian soldiers who have fought in Ukraine.
The report’s purpose, says Herbst, who now directs the council’s Eurasia program, is “to help stir a stronger response to very serious Russian aggression.”
“Western political leaders should speak clearly about … Russian forces fighting in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s direction of the campaign,” the report says. “To do otherwise buttresses Putin’s attempt to obfuscate Russia’s direct role in the conflict.”
In other words, failing to confront Putin’s lies about Ukraine only encourages him to do worse.
This report adds to the ample public evidence of Russia’s involvement. After denying any role in the invasion of Crimea, Putin admitted the famous “little green men” in unmarked uniforms were Russian soldiers. And one of the first leaders of the “rebellion” in eastern Ukraine, a Russian FSB (intelligence) colonel named Igor Girkin, has said publicly that the rebels are “the Kremlin’s creation.”
The report is also buttressed by a dossier compiled by the late Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov just before his death. He was shot dead in Moscow in February – a killing his friends believe was commissioned by the Kremlin. Nemtsov listed 220 Russian soldiers who died fighting inside Ukraine, but the number may be much higher.
Putin is clearly worried lest his public learn that Russia is fighting in Ukraine (polls show that Russians don’t want their sons dying abroad). State-controlled media report nothing on soldiers’ deaths in Ukraine, and Russian journalists seeking such information have been beaten up. Putin just declared that information about soldiers’ deaths in special operations, in “peacetime,” must be kept secret.
So the Russian leader is vulnerable – if his public realizes the country is at war.
The Atlantic Council proposes that Western governments make public, as far as is possible, details of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and share more intelligence details with Kiev. Western officials should speak “clearly, consistently, and publicly about Russia’s war against Ukraine,” the report says. I’d add that the European Union’s sanctions against Moscow for its Ukraine aggression, which are due to expire in June, should be continued. And if Putin continues his aggression, Washington should send Kiev arms.
But it all starts with Putin’s lies, which are indeed a test for the West. If he can lie with impunity, at home and abroad, he can ignore the Minsk accords. He can continue to destabilize Ukraine, along with the Baltics and other NATO member states on which he has designs.
So it’s time to make clear – to Western publics and Russians alike – that Putin unequivocally is running the war in Ukraine and that Russian troops can no longer hide in plain sight.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.