A pro-Russia separatist escorts Irma Krat from a news conference in Slaviansk, Ukraine, on Monday. Rebels detained the Ukrainian journalist and accused her of “war crimes” during the protests in Kiev. (Reuters)
Kiev, April 21: For two weeks, the mysteriously well-armed, professional gunmen known as “green men” have seized Ukrainian government sites in town after town, igniting a brush fire of separatist unrest across eastern Ukraine. Strenuous denials from the Kremlin have closely followed each accusation by Ukrainian officials that the world was witnessing a stealthy invasion by Russian forces.
Now, photographs and descriptions from eastern Ukraine endorsed by the Obama administration yesterday suggest that many of the green men are indeed Russian military and intelligence forces — equipped in the same fashion as Russian special operations troops involved in annexing the Crimea region in February.
Some of the men photographed in Ukraine have been identified in other photos clearly taken among Russian troops in other settings.
And Ukraine’s state security service has identified one Russian reported to be active among the green men as Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, a Russian military intelligence operative in his mid- to late 50s. He is said to have a long résumé of undercover service with the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian general staff, most recently in Crimea in February and March and now in and around the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk.
“There has been broad unity in the international community about the connection between Russia and some of the armed militants in eastern Ukraine, and the photos presented by the Ukrainians last week only further confirm this, which is why US officials have continued to make that case,” Jen Psaki, the state department spokeswoman, said yesterday.
The question of Russia’s role in eastern Ukraine has a critical bearing on the agreement reached on Thursday in Geneva among Russian, Ukrainian, American and European diplomats to ease the crisis. American officials have said that Russia would be held responsible for ensuring that the Ukrainian government buildings were vacated, and that it could face new sanctions if the terms were not met. The Kremlin insists that Russian forces are in no way involved, and that Strelkov does not even exist, at least not as a Russian operative sent to Ukraine with orders to stir up trouble.
“It’s all nonsense,” President Vladimir V. Putin said on Thursday during a four-hour question-and-answer session on Russian television. “There are no Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine.” Pro-Russian activists who have seized government buildings in at least 10 towns across eastern Ukraine also deny getting help from professional Russian soldiers or intelligence agents.
But masking the identity of its forces, and clouding the possibilities for international denunciation, is a central part of the Russian strategy, developed over years of conflict in the former Soviet sphere, Ukrainian and American officials say.
John R. Schindler, a former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer who now teaches at the Naval War College, calls it “special war”: “an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense”. And one country, Schindler noted in an article last year in which he coined the term, that particularly excels at special war is Russia, which carried out its first post-Soviet war to regain control of rebellious Chechnya back in 1994 by sending in a column of armoured vehicles filled with Russian soldiers masquerading as pro-Moscow Chechens.
Russia’s flair for “maskirovka” — disguised warfare — has become even more evident under Putin, a former KGB officer whose closest advisers are mostly from that same Soviet intelligence agency.
For nearly two months now, the shaky new Ukrainian government has been left to battle phantoms, first in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine, where previously fringe pro-Russian political activists have had their fortunes lifted by small but heavily armed groups of masked men.
In the eastern city of Slovyansk, under the control of pro-Russian insurgents for more than a week now, the green men have worked hard to blend in with locals but have occasionally let the mask slip, apparently to send a clear message that any push to regain control by Ukrainian forces would risk bringing down the wrath of the Russian military.
A gradation of forces control the city and other areas now in the hands of separatist rebels, ranging from clearly professional masked soldiers and unruly groups of local men in camouflage, rifles slung over their shoulders, to teenage boys in sweatpants carrying baseball bats or hunting knives. At most times, only the local toughs are visible on the streets.
But when a woman sidled up to one of the masked gunmen in the city’s central square last week and asked where he was from, she got an answer that summed up Russia’s bedeviling and constantly shifting disguises. The gunman initially said he was “from Russia,” but when pressed, said coyly that he was “from New Russia”, a long-forgotten Czarist-era term revived last week by Putin to describe a large section of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Asked by the woman what would happen if the Ukrainian Army attacked, he replied, “We have to stand for only 24 hours, to tend the fire, and after that, a one million man army will be here.”