Ukraine’s rebels have Russian backing, as evidenced by the separatist leadership. Soon after Alexander Zakharchenko had taken over as Prime Minister in the self-proclaimed People’s Republic in Donetsk, he told reporters that many of the forces under his command included some 1,200 soldiers who had recently been trained in Russia. When asked to clarify, he said that they had received four months of training “on the territory of the Russian Federation.” His statement is at odds with the official Russian version, which continues to insist that Russia is not helping the separatists.
Zakharchenko detailed his fighting inventory as having tanks and approximately 150 assorted combat vehicles. While a UN inspection team claimed to find no evidence when sent to monitor movement of troops and weapons across the border, Ukrainian citizens have used mobile phone videos posted on YouTube which paint a very different picture. Still, in spite of video evidence, and recent sightings of border incursions by Western journalists following Russia’s “humanitarian convoy,” Russia continues to deny reports of military aid crossing the border into Ukraine.
Zakharchenko changed his story however on Saturday, when appearing on LifeNews, a Russian television channel. He told viewers that the military assets had been abandoned by the Ukrainian military, saying that the Ukrainians “left us so much hardware that we can’t find enough people to crew it.” He claimed that the abandoned hardware included Grad rocket launchers, tanks and armored troop vehicles. Zakharchenko said that most of his fighters are ethnic Ukrainians, simply volunteers from Russia, and not members of the regular Russian military.
Rebel fighters in Ukraine have boasted about Russian backing on popular Russian language social media sites. In more recent weeks, however, the government in Kiev says they’ve collected evidence of rebel fighters complaining of delays in equipment arriving from Russia.
According to The Hill, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke with Russia’s top defense executive, Sergei Shoygu, by telephone on Friday. Shoygu assured Hagel that no Russian military personnel were involved with the humanitarian convoy. That contradicts reports on the scene from Western journalists, several of whom posted twitter photos of columns of military vehicles trailing the humanitarian convoy.
Russia’s humanitarian aid remains stuck on the Russian side of the border, but the government in Kiev says that has not stopped the flow of arms and fighters coming across. Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign minister, will meet his counterpart Sergei Lavrov of Russia, as the two are in Berlin to hold talks with the foreign ministers of Germany and France. The group is expected to discuss Russia’s humanitarian convoy, and ways to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine.
Yesterday a deal was reached allowing the Russian humanitarian aid to cross the Ukrainian border under the direction of the Red Cross. Paul Picard, observer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, briefed reporters on the process of aid logistics yesterday. Picard said that the Red Cross would take over the convoy, as soon as both sides agreed to guarantee safe passage. The route into the Lukansk area has come under heavy fighting in recent days.
The rebels in Ukraine have Russian backing, but as Kiev’s government troops encircle the rebels, many of the pro-Russian separatists are calling on Russia to step in and defeat Ukrainian defenses. Oleg Tsarev, a former Ukrainian presidential candidate, and a current leader in the separatist movement, told a Russian state television station that Russia should intervene quickly. He told viewers that the best way to stop the fighting is for Russia to step in with “a quick military victory.”
By Jim Hanemaayer