Russia has sent tanks and rocket launchers to separatists in Eastern Ukraine, the U.S. State Department said earlier today, calling the development “unacceptable.”

In doing so, the U.S. is contradicting a claim by the Russian foreign ministry that news of the tanks was just “another fake piece of information.”

The New York Times reports:

A column of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 “Grad” multiple rocket launchers, and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne, State Department officials said. Reports and images of the weapons circulated on Thursday, but there were conflicting claims about where they had come from.

… The T-64 is an obsolescent tank no longer in active use by Russian forces, but it is still kept in storage in southwest Russia.

“Russia will claim these tanks were taken from Ukrainian forces, but no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area,” the State Department said Friday afternoon. “We are confident that these tanks came from Russia.”

“We also have information that Russia has accumulated multiple rocket launchers at this same deployment site in southwest Russia, and these rocket launchers also recently departed,” it added. “Internet video has shown what we believe to be these same rocket launchers traveling through Luhansk.”

Lying about the Russian role in inciting, arming and organizing Ukrainian separatism is nothing new. Yet, as Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, now the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, astutely wrote:

By sending three T-72 tanks into Donetsk accompanied by an armored vehicle flying the Russian flag, Mr Putin is trying to secure full control of this key Ukrainian city and to test the resolve of Western powers.  …Sending in the tanks is Moscow’s way of saying that it can increase its military presence in the region to offset any Ukrainian gain.

This move comes despite the position taken June 5 by the Group of Seven industrialized nations that it would levy sanctions against whole sectors of the Russian economy if the Kremlin’s efforts to destabilize Eastern Ukraine did not cease within thirty days.  Mr. Putin understands that he now has twenty-three days to stop supporting/expanding the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, therefore he will watch carefully watch the Western reaction.  He recalls that in early May, President Obama, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande had all promised sectoral sanctions if Russia disrupted the Ukrainian presidential elections May 25.  While Russian surrogates prevented 75 percent of the residents of Luhansk and Donetsk from voting, the Western powers were satisfied by the Kremlin’s lukewarm statements about the elections and levied no penalty on Moscow.

If Mr. Obama and his European counterparts do not react strongly and quickly to the presence of Russian tanks and additional fighters in Donetsk, those forces will remain and receive reinforcements.  They may even try a minor offensive action or two, again to gauge the Western reaction.  Mr. Putin knows that a lobster is cooked gradually.  If, however, there is a sharp Western reaction, he knows that he has until July 5 to reduce his latest escalation and to thereby avoid sectoral sanctions.  He can do a great deal of damage in that time.  This is a cynical, but effective tactic enabled by European faint-heartedness. 

Read more here and here.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.