The murky goings-on along the Russia-Ukraine border became even murkier on Friday as Ukrainian and Russian officials swapped accusations about illegal military incursions onto one another's territory. Though both sides have denied any wrongdoing, the State Department confirmed Friday afternoon that Russia had in fact sent a convoy of Soviet-era tanks into Ukraine. But who was driving them and where they came from is unclear, yet another unknown in a war of increasingly unknown unknowns. Neither Russia nor Ukraine seem to fully ascertain what's going on in the separatist enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, even as both sides continue efforts to assert control over the restive regions—and it's hard to win a war you don't understand.
The information war took a new turn on Thursday after Ukraine issued claims that Russian tanks crossed into Ukrainian territory, which Russia, of course, denied. There was some debate over what kind of tanks they were and where they came from—were they Soviet relics from Russia, or Ukraine? But according to the State Department, the convoy did in fact consist of three T-64s, "an obsolescent tank no longer in active use by Russian forces, but still kept in storage in southwest Russia," The Times reports.
To retaliate against the allegations, Russian media began reporting that two Ukrainian tanks manned by some 26 troops had illegally crossed into Russian territory Friday morning, but the details of the case are fuzzy. The Russian Federal Security Service said it was really only one tank, which had to stop in a Russian town for technical reasons. A Ukrainian tank is supposedly still on Russian territory—"I guess that will become a trophy," an RT reporter said.
Ukraine, for now, has said that there were no such tanks. “In this information war, there are a lot of falsehoods and it’s difficult to comment on everything,” Vladislav Seleznev, a spokesman for the Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation, said Friday.
Mind you, this all comes two days after Ukraine decided to close the border with Russia, a seemingly impossible feat given the fact that the border has never been secured—in many places, it’s hard to tell where exactly the border is. As Sabrina Tavernise has reported for The New York Times, controlling the border in the Luhansk region, where the Russian tanks supposedly crossed over, is a difficult proposition. “Its more than 100 miles of squiggly border with Russia have proven remarkably porous in recent weeks, with reports of fighters and supplies crossing into Ukraine with relative ease,” Tavernise writes. The best plan Ukraine seems to have to fix this comes from oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who proposes to erect a 100-million Euro barbed-wire fence. So not only do neither Russia nor Ukraine have a full picture of what's going on in the region, but also neither side appears to know who is crossing the border, and who controls it.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has already sent a "note of protest" to Ukraine regarding the alleged border incursion, and told ITAR-TASS that the dispute will "hamper the Russian-Ukrainian dialogue that has hardly begun." By "dialogue," they mean Russia's continuing insistence that Ukraine halt its anti-terrorist operation in the east, which would effectively mean giving up its claim to separatist-controlled territory. Yesterday, Russia submitted yet another draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council demanding a ceasefire. And on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov assured Ukraine that if it were to halt military efforts in the east, “Namely then, the people that you call separatists, I am sure will answer reciprocally.”
But those "people that you call separatists" are well beyond both Russian and Ukrainian control, which is why the unknowns of the conflict are multiplying. Separatists have refused to cooperate with the creation of humanitarian corridors that would help civilians flee west, for instance, despite the fact that both Russia and Ukraine have endorsed the creation of such an escape route. They must have just been given the wrong information, I am sure.