The EU has broken its taboo on referring to Russian forces in east Ukraine in its official documents, Belgian online magazine EUobserver says.
It said in its Official Journal on Monday (16 February) that Russian deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov is being added to its blacklist because he is ‘involved in supporting the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine’. It listed first deputy defence minister Arkady Bakhin for the same reason.
It also listed Andrei Kartapolov, a senior Russian military commander, for being ‘involved in shaping and implementing the military campaign of the Russian forces in Ukraine’.
The text in the legal gazette was signed off by EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini, who has, until now, with the exception of Russia-annexed Crimea, studiously avoided any reference to Russian armed forces being active in Ukraine.
The last time EU foreign ministers published a formal statement on the conflict, on 29 January, they also used circumlocutions, speaking of: ‘evidence of continued and growing support given to the separatists by Russia, which underlines Russia’s responsibility’. They added that ‘foreign armed groups’ should leave Ukrainian territory.
Individual EU officials, such as Council chief Donald Tusk, have been more hawkish in off-the-cuff remarks.
Ukraine, the US, and Nato have been speaking of Russian forces in Ukraine since last July. Nato and the US have also declassified and published satellite pictures to back up their statements.
The US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, posted more images online last weekend, saying they show “Russian military, not separatist, systems”.
But the erstwhile EU taboo went higher than minister level. When French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders agreed a ceasefire plan in Minsk last Thursday, they also bowed to Russia’s claim its soldiers aren’t in Ukraine, by calling for withdrawal of “foreign armed formations”.
When leaders of the G7 wealthy nations the following day published a statement urging Russia to comply with the Minsk accord, they too spoke of “Russian-backed separatist militias”.
For her part, Mogherini’s spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, told EUobserver the language in the Official Journal is not an accident. She noted it reflects “mounting evidence, underlining Russia’s responsibility” for the conflict, as discussed by foreign ministers on 29 January.
One piece of evidence is a classified report on Russian activity in Ukraine compiled by Mogherini’s intelligence-sharing branch, IntCen, and circulated to capitals ahead of the 29 January meeting.
An EU diplomat, who asked not to be named, noted: “This new form of Russian warfare – using tanks and soldiers without insignia – is something we haven’t seen before. We’re still trying to work out how to respond to it”.
A second EU diplomat added: “It [the latest Official Journal text] is a clear and understandable message against Russian propaganda and all the lies about non-Russian engagement in the military conflict”.
Russia’s claim it isn’t involved in east Ukraine is central to its propaganda message: that the conflict is a “civil war” between Ukrainian nationalists and ethnic Russian “separatists”. But the 16 February Official Journal, which also listed nine entities, highlighted the manufactured nature of the “separatism”.
Most of the entities are battalions of Russia’s irregular fighters in Ukraine. But one of them is ‘Novorossiya’, a Russian “public movement” named after the Kremlin concept that east and south-east Ukraine, or “New Russia”, belong to Russia on ancestral grounds. The Official Journal noted that Novorossiya is run by Igor Strelkov, who is already on an EU blacklist for organising the initial insurgency in Donetsk, east Ukraine, last March. The EU gazette says he is a “Russian officer … identified as a staff member of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU)”.