A local man looks at the craters from the shells at the central street of Debaltsevo, Donetsk area, Ukraine, Jan. 20, 2015. ( EPA/Anastasia Vlasova)

The following is a guest post by political scientist Kimberly Marten of Barnard College, Columbia University. 

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Despite the allure of another Russian spy scandal in New York City, the real news right now centers on the upsurge of fighting in eastern Ukraine. During the weekend, 30 people were killed by a rocket attack on an open-air market in Mariupol. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) — an international organization which counts Russia as a member state and is monitoring the fighting with Russian agreement — announced that crater-impact analysis indicates that the rocket came from territory controlled by Russian-supported rebels. This may constitute a war crime, according to a United Nations official. Since then the rebel offensive has only expanded.

The situation may become even more dangerous. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed earlier this week that Ukrainian forces are actually a “foreign NATO legion,” which “doesn’t pursue the national interests of Ukraine” but instead “the geopolitical goals of containing Russia.” While it is tempting to dismiss this as another entry in Russia’s long-standing rhetorical war against the West, Putin’s statement could be a trial balloon aimed at gauging current Russian domestic opinion about ramping up Russian military activity in Ukraine.

While there is ample evidence that Russian troops first entered eastern Ukraine many months ago, the Kremlin officially insists that any Russian citizens there are “volunteers” acting on their own. As Thomas Sherlock pointed out in the Monkey Cage in the fall, a majority of the Russian population has not favored the introduction of Russian military troops into eastern Ukraine. In mid-January Yevgenii Primakov, the highly respected former prime minister of Russia and former head of the Russian foreign intelligence service, went further. He said in a Moscow speech: “If the Minsk Agreements are not followed, should Russia in an extreme case send its regular troops to help the militias? My answer: categorically no. If this happened, it would be beneficial for the U.S., which would use the situation to keep Europe under its influence for an entire century.”

But what Putin’s Jan. 26 statement implies is that the situation in Ukraine is no longer about the Minsk Agreements — the Sept. 5 cease-fire accord worked out between representatives of Moscow, Kiev, and the OSCE. The Minsk protocol, said to be designed on Putin’s initiative, called for the political resolution of an internal conflict inside Ukraine, whose causes could be addressed through things like decentralization of state authority, new local elections, a prisoner exchange by Ukrainian and rebel forces, and a Ukrainian national dialogue. Now, Putin implies, the fault lies with NATO, which was not a party to the Minsk accords.

If NATO is using Ukraine — which is not a NATO member state — to fight a proxy war against Russian influence, then direct Russian national security interests are at stake. This notion is bolstered by the late December release of a new version of Russia’s military doctrine, which (as Olga Oliker of RAND notes) differs not so much in content as in tone from the 2010 version, especially in its description of the growing dangers on Russian borders emanating from NATO.

Further, a clip published by the Russian state RT news service on Jan. 25 purports to show a heavily armed soldier in fatigues in Mariupol saying to a Russian-speaking journalist “Outta my face, outta my face, please,” in perfect American-accented English. The words are heard as the soldier covers his face with his hand and the camera angle jerks abruptly to the ground — making it impossible to match the words with the soldier’s lip movements, much less to identify him. But the implication for the Russian-speaking audience is clear: American soldiers are on the ground directing events in Mariupol.

It is impossible to know for sure what Putin intends to do next in Ukraine, and his recent remarks may soon be forgotten. But Putin has repeatedly demonstrated his love of surprise moves. If, as Russian scholar Konstantin Sonin suggested a few days ago, Putin and his closest advisers believe that Russia truly “is on a holy mission,” then open Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine may not be off the table after all.