Russian Military Insignia Are Reported In Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- International monitors tracking cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine reported Friday that they had encountered four people wearing military uniforms with Russian insignia in a town about 25 miles southeast of the regional capital of Donetsk, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Sgt. Aleksandr Aleksandrov, who identified himself as a Russian soldier, was interviewed by Reuters at a hospital in Kiev.

In its daily report, the special monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said a young man had reported that “an unknown armed group” had occupied the grounds of a former children’s campground in the town, Petrivske.

According to the report, monitors “spoke to two women, both wearing military uniforms, with caps with Russian Federation Armed Forces insignia.”

“During the conversation with the two women, a vehicle with Russian Federation number plates stopped next to the O.S.C.E. vehicles and two armed men, similarly dressed, exited the car and ordered the women to stop the conversation,” the report stated.

Behind a fence surrounding the camp, the monitors “observed one infantry fighting vehicle,” according to the report.

The monitors could not enter the camp.

The report was a rare allegation by the international monitors of a possible sighting of active Russian military personnel in eastern Ukraine.

The monitors, however, did not identify the women or men who were observed in uniform in Petrivske, and there was no way to independently verify the monitors’ account.

Although there has been substantial other evidence of Russian military activity in eastern Ukraine cited by journalists, as well as by Ukraine and its Western allies, including the United States, the monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have not previously reported a definitive observation of uniformed personnel bearing Russian insignia.

On Nov. 13, the monitors reported seeing “five unarmed men in camouflage, with Russian Federation flag patches and other badges on their uniforms,” in the city of Luhansk, but noted that they were “unable to ascertain the affiliation of these men.”

The monitors have regularly reported unmarked military convoys pulling heavy weaponry toward Donetsk, said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the monitoring mission.

Asked if monitors had previously seen such clear evidence of Russian military insignia, Mr. Bociurkiw replied, “No, we haven’t.”

The Kremlin in recent days has reiterated its longstanding denials that any active-duty Russian forces have been present in eastern Ukraine, despite substantial evidence to the contrary, including dozens of military funerals in Russia during the past year of fighting.

Ukrainian forces this month captured two fighters who have identified themselves as active-duty Russian soldiers from a special forces unit, the Third Special Forces Brigade, based in Togliatti in southern Russia.

The Russian government has confirmed that the two men are Russian citizens but insists that they are former military personnel who left active service before going to Ukraine.

In an interview with Reuters, published Friday, the men said again that they were Russian military personnel.

One of the men, Sgt. Aleksandr Aleksandrov, told the news agency that he was in the middle of a three-year contract, which he had never canceled, and that he felt abandoned by his country.

“I never tore it up; I wrote no resignation request,” Sergeant Aleksandrov said.

“I was carrying out my orders.”

The potential political fallout from Russian soldiers’ being wounded and killed in eastern Ukraine seems to be increasingly worrisome for the Kremlin.

On Thursday, President Vladimir V. Putin decreed that Russian casualties in “special operations” can be classified as military secrets even in peacetime.

Despite Putin’s repeated denials that Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, his critics say Russia not only continues to intervene militarily in Ukraine but is turning its back on soldiers who are wounded or killed there.

The monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also reported Friday that a separatist leader, Aleksandr V. Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, had told them he was “unavailable to attend meetings outside the country until the end of July due to health reasons.”

This presented a potential stumbling block in efforts to negotiate full implementation of the cease-fire accord signed in Minsk, Belarus, in February.

Russia, which helped broker the accord together with Ukraine, France and Germany, has insisted that it wants to put the peace deal into effect.

The United States, however, has criticized Russia for failing to live up to its obligations under the agreement and of obstructing efforts to carry out steps required to achieve a long-term political resolution of the Ukraine crisis.

The Kremlin says the failure to carry out the accord is the fault of the Ukrainian government in Kiev. 

In its report on Friday, the security and cooperation organization noted an increase in cease-fire violations compared with those of recent days, including 150 explosions heard from an observation point near the central railway station in Donetsk, consistent with mortar and tank fire.

Because of security concerns, the monitors said they could not observe the situation in Shyrokyne, the scene of some intense clashes in recent weeks.

But from an observation point in the city of Mariupol, the monitors reported hearing explosions coming from the direction of Shyrokyne.

“We do see a deterioration,” said Mr. Bociurkiw, the organization’s spokesman.

“It does appear to us the geographical scope of the zone of conflict is slightly widening.”

Source: The New York Times