Separatists 'won't rule out' Russian boots on ground as Ukraine invasion rhetoric escalates

Denis Pushilin is pointing the finger at Ukraine. Credit: AP

It’s rare to for the international media to be able to question the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin.

The DPR is a self-proclaimed breakaway territory, established by separatists with Russia’s help in 2014, during the uprising that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

Today, Pushilin held an extensive press conference in which he made a series of claims about aggression perpetrated by the Ukrainian army in the past.

He claimed people inside the separatist enclave had previously been subjected to ethnic cleansing, and in years past have faced repeated breaches of the ceasefire by the Ukrainian army.

Of course, the Ukrainian army claims the exact opposite; that it is in fact the forces of the DPR which are constantly attempting to provoke their troops, with gunfire and drone attacks.

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk People's Republic. Credit: AP

We’ve certainly seen evidence of the damage inflicted to Ukrainian homes near the conflict zone this week. But Mr Pushilin reeled off a long list of supposed crimes committed by Ukraine, which he described as a ‘terrorist state’.

I asked him via video link whether, given all these supposed attacks by Ukraine, he would welcome Russian troops in the DPR. He told me he "couldn’t rule it out" if there were a full-scale offensive by Ukraine.

He also pointed out that 700,000 people in the DPR now had Russian citizenship. That seems to open the door, in theory, to Russian troops rolling into the DPR to ‘protect’ Russian speaking people there.

Officially there are no Russian boots on the ground in the DPR, but a Ukrainian commander told me last week he is certain Russian troops are at the very least directing the DPR troops and providing them with weapons and intelligence.

A more overt Russian move into the territory, including heavy weapons, would undoubtedly be an alarming escalation, which would risk this smouldering conflict suddenly igniting.

But it might also provide President Putin with a face-saving way out of this crisis - showing he is willing to act, without actually launching a full scale assault on the rest of the country, with all the disastrous consequences for international security which could flow from that.

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A more pessimistic interpretation might be that claims by Pushilin are the start of a narrative being established to justify a Russian invasion. Russia could claim it is acting to protect Russian speakers who are in danger of further Ukrainian aggression.

Russia has repeatedly insisted it has no plans to attack, but the military exercises being conducted with Belarus and around the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov are making many nervous.

On Thursday, President Biden told all Americans to leave Ukraine saying "things could go crazy very quickly" and that he would not be sending troops to rescue Americans if Russia invades. It’s difficult to find many Ukrainians who share that view.

Most I’ve talked to here think this is Russian sabre-rattling and a continuation of the pressure they have felt since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

There is not a shred of panic in any of the cities we have visited in the last two weeks. But the press conference today does make you wonder whether this is the beginning of a concerted effort to give Russia the excuse it needs to act.