A video recording of Alexander Zakharchenko speaking to delegates in the rebel-held city of Donetsk confirms reports of Moscow’s military support to the separatists, who have been fighting Ukrainian government troops since April.
Ukraine’s government claimed on Friday to have destroyed part of a column of Russian military vehicles that crossed its border, with NATO accusing Moscow of launching an “incursion”.
Russia, as always, denies any incursion into Ukraine by its troops.
It also denies lending any military or logistical support to the rebel militias.
David Cameron, the Prime Minister, expressed his “grave concern” over reports of the breach, and Washington called for Moscow to halt its “extremely dangerous and provocative” actions.
In his speech, made on Friday at a “people’s council” and posted on a pro-rebel YouTube channel, Zakharchenko said: “The following reserves have been gathered: 150 armoured vehicles, of which about 30 are tanks and the rest are BMPs and BTRs [infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers], 1,200 military personnel, who are there now, who underwent training for four months on the territory of the Russian Federation. They were brought into action at the most crucial moment.”
Zakharchenko, who is a so-called prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, did not make clear exactly where the armoured vehicles were situated.
The troops were approaching or travelling along a “corridor” established by the rebels between Russia and Ukraine and would take part in battles to keep it open.
Pro-Russian rebels have been fighting Ukrainian government troops in eastern Ukraine since April, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
NATO countries and Ukraine have consistently accused Russia of sending tanks, missile launchers and other equipment across the two countries’ shared border in support of the rebels, who have also seized weapons from Ukrainian forces in battle.
The US and European states believe the rebels shot down the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that crashed in eastern Ukraine on July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board.
They suggest the separatists shot down the aircraft by mistake, using a surface-to-air Buk missile launcher supplied by Russia, or manned by Russian personnel.
The rebels and Moscow deny that.
It was not possible to verify Zakharchenko’s claims of massing troops independently, but a heavy Russian military presence has been noted in the border zone in the past three days.
On Thursday evening, correspondents from The Telegraph and The Guardian saw at least 23 armoured vehicles and military trucks crossing from Russia into Ukraine close to the Donetsk checkpoint, north of Rostov-on-Don.
It was the first time that international media had reported such a crossing.
Russia’s ministry of defence rubbished accusations of an incursion and Ukraine’s claim that it destroyed part of a Russian column on its territory.
“No such Russian military column exists that supposedly crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border, neither at night nor during the day,” said Igor Konashenkov, a ministry spokesman.
“Such claims, based on some kind of fantasies, or, to be more accurate, the suppositions of journalists, should not be the subject of serious discussion for high-ranking figures of any state.”
However, it is clear that, at the least, many volunteer fighters from Russia have been allowed to cross into Ukraine across a rebel-held section of the border.
Zakharchenko did not clarify in his speech whether the 1,200 troops he referred to were Russian servicemen, volunteers from Russia, or militiamen from eastern Ukraine who had travelled to Russia for training.
The news of reinforcements will place fresh diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin to break off its support for the rebels in Ukraine. Caitlin Hayden, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, warned that “the escalation in Russian activity designed to destabilise Ukraine in recent weeks is extremely dangerous and provocative”.
The EU added its voice to the protest, demanding that Russia “put an immediate stop to any form of border hostilities, in particular to the flow of arms, military advisers and armed personnel into the conflict region, and to withdraw its forces from the border”.
Attention focused on the Russian-Ukrainian border in recent days because Russia sent a supposed humanitarian aid convoy – destined for civilians in eastern Ukraine – to the area.
The 270 trucks of cargo, which includes food, water, medicines, bedding and generators, parked about 20 miles short of the Donetsk crossing point.
Russia and Ukraine on Saturday night agreed a deal which would allow the Russian aid convoy to cross the border, a Red Cross official announced.
No details of the agreement have been published.
In Washington, the Pentagon said that Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, received an assurance from his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, that there were “no Russian military personnel involved in the humanitarian convoy, nor was the convoy to be used as a pretext to further intervene in Ukraine”.
Source: The Telegraph