It would appear that the proverbial elephant — or perhaps in this case, the bear — in the living room has finally been revealed.
The Kremlin may still deny it, but the evidence of a Russian invasion, or at least an incursion, into Ukraine is compelling: NATO spy photos, eye-witness accounts from fleeing Ukrainian soldiers, and even a ranking member of Vladimir Putin’s own human-rights council, all seem to point toward the presence of Russian soldiers — several battalions’ worth and with sophisticated weapons — fighting with the rebels and slowing, if not reversing, the recent Ukrainian military’s momentum on the battlefield.
Even Alexander Zakharchenko, the separatist leader of Donetsk, the regional capital, proudly told viewers of Russian state television Thursday that 3,000 to 4,000 Russian soldiers had come to fight in eastern Ukraine, many during their own furloughs.
But if the once unthinkable is fact, then what is the Russian president really up to now? Opening up a new front in the war, the rebels say they are pushing — with Moscow’s help — to the Sea of Azov, in Ukraine’s southeast, to give any future breakaway entity there access to a warm-water port.
Some Ukrainians fear that Putin’s real goal is a land corridor linking Russia and Crimea, the strategic Ukrainian peninsula Putin annexed in March after the Moscow-friendly government in Kiev fell.
A number of NATO officials have spoken of Putin’s "grand plan": nothing less than resurrecting the Soviet Union, an ambition that — in Putin’s mind — would make a pro-Europe, pro-NATO Ukraine, looming on his very doorstep, a threat that must be removed or at least seriously weakened.
Russian military units moving in a convoy formation with self-propelled artillery in the area of Krasnodon, Ukraine, well inside territory controlled by Russian separatists, in this satellite image captured on Aug. 21. There is confidence the equipment is Russian, since Ukrainian units have not yet penetrated this far into separatist controlled territory.
But other voices are not as shrill. Fyodor Lukyanov, the Editor of "Russia in Global Affairs" and the Chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, believes that Putin actually lacks a big strategy, but excels at quick, reactive tactics. He told NBC News that the Russian incursion into Ukraine is all about pressuring Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to reach an agreement. "To let him know that the war is unwinnable," Lukyanov said, "and to accept direct talks with the separatists."
"That simply will never happen," insisted Ukrainian analyst Sergei Strokan, who works for the Russian radio station “Voice of Russia.” He said the likelihood of Poroshenko sitting down and negotiating with the rebels — the Ukrainians call them "terrorists" — would be like former President George W. Bush bargaining face-to-face with Osama bin Laden. "Never. It would be political suicide," said Strokan. "To recognize the rebels you would have to wipe today’s Ukraine off the map and replace it with some new, non-existent Ukraine."
Putin, ever the shadowy former KGB officer, rarely speaks or writes about his end-game in Ukraine, besides some platitudes about protecting the Russian minority there and wanting a prosperous and unified neighbor. Which makes all the speculation about Putin’s true intentions all the more intriguing … and probably wrong.
But Ukrainian government officials like Andrei Kuzmenko, acting ambassador to the United Kingdom, have no doubt about what drives Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. "He can’t bear to see, and will do everything to prevent, a thriving, free, democratic country like Ukraine on his border," Kuzmenko told NBC News. "For the simple reason that, if we Ukrainians can do it, so could the Russians … at his own peril."
First published August 28 2014, 4:23 PM
In a career spanning 40 years, Jim Maceda has covered more than 100 countries and many conflicts, terrorist attacks and natural disasters, as well as cultural and human interest stories. He has interviewed dozens of world leaders. Over the years, Maceda has reported from the front lines of Rhodesia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and Chechnya, as well as on the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, including NATO airstrikes in Serbia and Kosovo. He is the veteran of scores of embeds in Afghanistan and Iraq, doing stories on the U.S. Army, Marines and Special Forces as well as insurgents and civilians torn apart by war. Since 1999, Maceda has been based in London.
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Maceda was named NBC News' Germany correspondent in 1994, based in Frankfurt, from where he covered Eastern Europe, the Bosnian civil war and peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia and Haiti. In addition, he covered major breaking news in Iran, Russia, China and the Middle East.
In 1990 Maceda became the NBC News Moscow correspondent, covering an array of stories from the Soviet Union and Russia, including the attempted coup on then-President Mikhail G. Gorbachev and the fall of the Soviet Union. In February 1992 Maceda became the first foreign TV correspondent to gain access to a secret nuclear city in Siberia, named K-26, which housed the biggest plutonium weapons factory in the former Soviet Union. Maceda also covered the civil war and the failed U.S. peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
Maceda was based in Manila from 1988 to 1990 as an NBC News Asia reporter and producer. He covered a wide range of datelines, including the Cambodian War, the Burma Revolt, the Drug War in Colombia and the Panama Invasion. In 1989 he won an Emmy for his reporting on the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing.
From 1984 to 1988, Maceda was a senior news producer in London. During that time, he was part of the first U.S. television team to cover the devastating famine in Ethiopia. In 1988 he won an Emmy for his coverage of the Palestinian Intifada, or Uprising, the same year he made his switch to on-air reporting. He also served as the acting bureau chief for NBC News in Manila in 1986, during the People Power Revolt and fall of Ferdinand Marcos.
Maceda was the deputy bureau chief and producer for NBC News in Tel Aviv from 1981 to 1983 where he covered major events including Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, its handing over of the Sinai to Egypt and the 1982 Lebanon War. While in Beirut, he produced the heralded 17-part "Lebanon Diary" series.
Maceda got his start in journalism as an associate producer for CBS News in Paris, from 1973 to 1976. As a freelance reporter and producer for French TV from 1976 to 1980, he was the first to secure a joint interview for a European TV network with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after the Camp David Accords. In 1980 he joined NBC News' Paris Bureau as an associate producer and researcher.
Maceda has won numerous awards and citations, including an Edward R. Murrow award for his coverage of the 7/7 London terror bombings, seven Emmy nominations, four Overseas Press Club awards, and three National Headliner awards. In 1991 he received the Olive Branch Award from Columbia University for his stories on Russian nuclear proliferation. Maceda has had the distinction of reporting exclusively for two, long-running news series on "Nightly News with Brian Williams": "Putinâ€™s Russia" (2007-2008) and "Far From Home" (in Afghanistan, 2010-12).
Maceda graduated from Stanford University in 1970 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He then pursued post-graduate studies at the Paris Sorbonne. He is married to Cindy Lilles, has a grown daughter from a previous marriage, and is the doting grandpa of three young girls.