After months of increasingly absurd denials that there were Russian Federation citizens fighting in eastern Ukraine, we appear to have confirmation that several thousand have been rotating in and out over the past several months. The admission, however, continued to insist that these Russian fighters were actually retired military veterans and “vacationing” active duty troops:
“There are active soldiers fighting among us who preferred to spend their vacation not on the beach, but with us, among their brothers, who are fighting for their freedom,” Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a rebel commander and the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said in an interview on Russian state-run television.
Mr. Zakharchenko said that between 3,000 and 4,000 Russians had fought in the separatist ranks since the conflict erupted in the spring.
That assertion evaded the issue of direct Russian involvement by painting the soldiers as volunteers. It suggests, however, that Moscow still seeks to organize and to some extent control a force that could be operated at arm’s length with a backbone of local participation.
Mr. Zakharchenko, who says he has Ukrainian citizenship, took over as prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic this month, replacing Alexandr Borodai, a Russian. Several other Russians who had figured prominently in the rebel ranks, including the military commander Igor Strelkov, have also dropped from sight in recent weeks.
In the interview with the official satellite channel Rossiya 24, Mr. Zakharchenko said that many former professional Russian soldiers had come to Ukraine as volunteers, out of a sense of duty.
“There were about 3,000 or 4,000 of them in our ranks,” Mr. Zakharchenko said. “Many of them have gone home, but the majority have remained here. Unfortunately, some have been killed.”
This explanation probably became necessary given the recent capture of uniformed Russian Federation soldiers in Ukraine, plus the mounting number of combat deaths of Russians in Ukraine and the repeated social media slip-up revealing Russian soldiers to be working in Ukraine. The prior explanation has been that any such Russian Federation troops had accidentally crossed the border after becoming lost, which was becoming a pretty hard line to swallow, even for the most credulous observers.
This new admission also may be an effort to deflect some attention from other reports of incursions or invasions. In addition to these so-called volunteers, photos released by NATO today showed what they said were mobile Russian Federation artillery batteries arrayed in “firing position” inside Ukraine. This is an escalation from a month ago when such artillery units were allegedly firing upon Ukrainian military targets from across the Russian border.
Ukraine’s government, NATO, and journalists on the ground also reported seeing heavily armored columns of an estimated 1,000 troops crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border into Novoazovsk on the Sea of Azov coast (see below), as the Ukrainian Army fell back to — and dug in around — Mariupol and Kiev announced the emergency resumption of mandatory conscription.
See also our freshly updated Ukraine Crisis Map for wider area context.