What's happening back home? Photographer: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
What's happening back home? Photographer: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

I get nervous when Russian President Vladimir Putin goes to big international sporting events. He was in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, when Georgia launched an assault on pro-Russian separatists in that country. He rushed home to oversee Georgia's invasion and dismembering. He was in Sochi for the Winter Olympics in February this year, when former President Viktor Yanukovych was driven out of power in Kiev. On his return to Moscow, Putin began the annexation of Crimea.

Now he's gone to Brazil, watching yesterday's World Cup final and accepting host-nation status for the next tournament in 2018. He also met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and urged a new cease-fire for Ukraine, but both know that isn't happening. Ukrainian government forces are in the midst of a major assault against the pro-Russian separatists fighting there.

I'm not seriously suggesting a causal relationship between Putin's sporting visits and invasions, but there are worrying signs of escalation in Ukraine.

Standoff in Ukraine

Yesterday, Russia accused the Ukrainians of shelling across the border, killing one Russian citizen and seriously wounding another. The alleged death of a Russian in Russia at the hands of the Ukrainian military is a potential casus belli, and the foreign ministry duly warned of "irreversible consequences."

Kommersant newspaper said today that the Kremlin is considering pinpoint strikes against Ukraine in response, a report Putin's press secretary later denied. President Petro Poroshenko appears to be increasingly panicked and is asking European Union leaders to impose meaningful sanctions on Russia when they meet Wednesday. Ukraine claims to have turned back one large armored column that crossed the border from Russia on Saturday, and to have destroyed another that crossed yesterday.

Rationally, Putin shouldn't want to get more overtly involved in Ukraine. So far, he's managed to annex Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine at a low cost. Russia's stock market is back up to where it was before the annexation, while the EU is clearly reluctant to impose economic sanctions that would also threaten European exports. Meanwhile, if Ukraine's military starts bombing rebels in the regional capital Donetsk, any victory will be pyrrhic. In tactical terms, Putin still has the upper hand.

Conflicts, however, have a logic of their own and Putin's propaganda war to demonize the regime in Kiev and foster domestic support for his actions is reaching new depths. The most recent example is a claim, aired on Russian state television, by a woman who said she was a refugee from Slovyansk. She said that on retaking the town from pro-Russian rebels earlier this month, Ukrainian troops brought the town's remaining population to Lenin Square for a public execution, where they crucified a 3-year-old boy on a billboard and then dragged the unconscious body of his mother around the square behind a tank.

Terrible things happen in civil wars. Still, Slovyansk doesn't have a Lenin Square, though it has a Lenin Street. In the main square, there is no billboard. No mobile-phone recordings of the event have emerged, and no other witness has yet confirmed it. The story turns out to have been first told -- about a 6-year-old boy crucified to flush out his father -- on July 9, by the ultranationalist Russian polemicist Alexandr Dugin, citing someone who had heard it from someone else. So it's almost certainly a fabrication. Nevertheless, the story runs unchallenged on Russian TV, inflaming sentiment.

When EU leaders meet this week they should recognize that this conflict appears to be reaching a potentially more dangerous phase of escalation, even without evidence of preparation for a full-scale invasion. As the Russian citizens who lead Ukraine's separatists call in growing desperation for Russian help, and blood continues to flow, the pressure on Putin to act decisively -- whether real, manufactured or both -- will grow. The pressure to dissuade him must grow, too.

To contact the author of this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net.