Graham Stack in Schastye, Ukraine -
Irregular and regular Ukrainian forces have already captured “scores” of Russian Federation forces, a battalion commander tells bne, after Ukrainian media played videos of interviews with some captured members of Russia's elite Pskov airborne division. Ukraine now appears to possess damning evidence of Russia's involvement in driving the conflict in East Ukraine, but how this might influence Moscow's behaviour is not clear.
“We took prisoner an entire unit of 30 Russian soldiers prisoner in Novosvitlivka [a village on the eastern outskirts of Luhansk] last week – just like that,” Serhiy Melnichuk, commander of Ukraine's Aidar battalion of irregular volunteers, tells bne.
Aidar is based just north of Luhansk in the town of Schastye. “We had just taken control of the town from the terrorists, put up some roadblocks, and then a ZIL truck just drives up with 30 men in it, and we ask: who are you? They answer: your guys. We ask: Who are we then? They say: [separatist region] Luhansk People's Republic. And we answer: no, we're not, we're Ukrainian army,” says Melnichuk.
“They just had no idea that we had already taken the town,” he explains. “One of them tried to resist and was killed, the others surrendered without any resistance.”
According to Melnichuk, the truck contained an entire unit of paratroopers from Russia's elite Pskov airborne division, including two officers. He said the prisoners had been passed over to the relevant authorities in the Ukrainian military.
Melnichuk said his men had also captured two tank units after a battle at Khreschovat, also near Luhansk, over the last week. Melnichuk said he knew of at least two other cases where Ukrainian forces had captured significant numbers of regular Russian army troops. “Altogether we [Ukraine] now hold prisoner scores of regular Russian Federation troops, all of whom count here however as illegal combatants and will receive lengthy prison sentences,” Melnichuk said.
He attributed to what he perceived as a spike in the numbers of Russian regular forces his battalion encountered in the field – in addition to local rebel fighters and irregulars arriving from Russia – to the Minsk summit meeting between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that took place August 26. “Perhaps the Russians are playing a psychological game of pressure,” he said.
But the psychological boot seemed to be on the other foot August 26 when Ukraine's joint operations “Anti-Terrorist Operation” staff released videos of interviews with some of a group of ten Pskov paratroopers taken prisoner in Donetsk region, after a joint operation between the army and Ukraine's security services.
Russia acknowledged that these were indeed Russian army troops, and not former soldiers who had decided of their own free will to join the rebels in East Ukraine. “Their unit crossed the border and entered Ukraine by accident,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explained breezily.
In the videos – in which the soldiers' statements to the cameras appeared to be have been at least partly prepped by their interrogators – one of the Russian paras said their commanders had not told them they were going to Ukraine, and they first realised they were in Ukraine when they saw a tank flying the Ukrainian flag. Another said that he had now realised that in Ukraine that Russia's real “Slavic brothers” were fighting on the Ukrainian side, and that most of the fighters among the pro-Russian rebels were in fact not ethnic Slavs – a reference to rumours rife in Ukraine of large numbers of Chechen and other North Caucasian fighters having joined the rebel cause. A third told the camera that the conflict was really all about money.
Independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta provided in the run-up to the Minsk summit further indications of Russian regular forces fighting in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Novaya Gazeta reported that a number of Pskov paratroopers had been killed in unclear circumstances over the past week, decorated post-humously and interred, with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attending the funerals. The defence ministry stated that the deaths were the result of an accident with an unexploded shell on a firing ground.
The journalists identified social network profiles of more Russian paratroopers who also appeared to have died over the course of the last week. Ukrainian media meanwhile reported that around 100 wounded regular Russian troops had arrived by plane in St Petersburg for treatment.
With Ukraine apparently now possessing damning evidence of Russia's involvement in driving the conflict in East Ukraine, in the form of scores of prisoners, the question is turning to how this might influence Russian behaviour. The answer is not clear.
Analysts say it will doubtless prompt calls for the EU and US to impose more sanctions, but at the same time could push Russia to pursue a more conciliatory line – or on the contrary to escalate the conflict. "The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway," tweeted US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt August 26.
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