Russia has consistently denied supporting pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the video will step up pressure on the Kremlin to clarify its role in the fighting there.
In earlier peace talks between lower-ranking officials, Moscow’s position has prevented discussion of what Ukraine regards as the key to stopping the conflict — a Russian willingness to acknowledge, and halt, its support for rebels holed up in the eastern cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.
“It makes it very difficult to negotiate anything when Putin says he is not involved,” Michael A. McFaul, a former United States ambassador to Moscow and now a professor at Stanford University, said in a telephone interview.
Ukrainian forces have made steady progress in recent weeks against the rebels, driving them from a number of towns and villages, but the government says the advance has been slowed by an accelerating flow of arms and fighters from Russia to support the rebels.
After repeated accusations of Russian involvement that were not backed by any solid evidence, Ukraine on Tuesday released videos of men who, under interrogation, identified themselves as Russian soldiers captured on Ukrainian territory.
The men, who gave their names and military serial numbers, said they had been sent to Ukraine by their superiors after initially being told they were going on a training exercise.
The videos surfaced on the Facebook page of Ukraine’s so-called Anti-Terrorist Operation, just hours before Putin was due to meet Mr. Poroshenko and senior officials of the European Union in Minsk.
The meeting between the two presidents, the first since a brief encounter in June, would not end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, analysts said, but should at least open the way for future talks.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who visited Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, over the weekend, dampened expectations for the Minsk meeting.
It “certainly won’t result in the breakthrough” that Germany and others were hoping for, she told a German newspaper.
The videos released by Ukraine may make it more difficult for the Kremlin to stick to its approach of simply denying that it has any hand in the fighting.
“Everything was a lie. There were no drills here,” one of the captured Russians, who identified himself as Sergey A. Smirnov, told a Ukrainian interrogator.
He said he and other Russians from an airborne unit in Kostroma, in central Russia, had been sent on what was described initially as a military training exercise but later turned into a mission into Ukraine.
After having their cellphones and identity documents taken away, they were sent into Ukraine on vehicles stripped of all markings, Smirnov said.
RIA Novosti, a state-controlled Russian news agency, quoted an unnamed source from Russia’s defense ministry as saying the men had crossed into Ukraine by accident.
“The soldiers really did participate in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossed it by accident on an unmarked section, and as far as we understand showed no resistance to the armed forces of Ukraine when they were detained,” the source said.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian military, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, disputed that account and accused Russia of sending the soldiers across the border on a “special mission,” Reuters reported.
Dmitri Trenin, an expert on Russian foreign policy and the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, predicted that Russia would persist with its denials but might be willing to quietly abandon its support over time as it shifted to other ways to pressure Kiev.
“There is no solution to the Ukraine issue any time soon,” Mr. Trenin said in a telephone interview from Moscow.
Russia has already cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, complaining that it has not been paid for previous deliveries, and energy shortages will grow increasingly painful for Ukraine as winter approaches.
Moscow’s long-term goal, Mr. Trenin said, is not to force Ukraine to recognize the rebels’ self-declared states but to ensure that Ukraine never joins NATO or allows Western troops on Ukrainian territory.
That goal could be accomplished, he said, by forcing Ukraine to make constitutional changes that would give eastern regions an effective veto over key decisions by the government in Kiev.
“We are still at the early stages of this monumental struggle,” he said.
“The eastern rebels may lose their battle and Putin may be willing to accept this as a tactical move. But he is not ready to accept defeat of Russia’s policy in Ukraine.”
Source: The New York Times