The US State Department acknowledged Monday that images, supplied by Ukrainian diplomats, of unidentified armed men in eastern Ukraine are linked to Russian special forces that have operated in Crimea this year and Georgia in 2008.
Since they shot into the international spotlight in late February when they appeared at Crimean sites in green uniforms with no markings, they have been dubbed “little green men”.
Weeks later, the provenance of these mystery men were more difficult to ascertain in eastern Ukraine.
Until Monday, when the US State Department weighed in on a series of photographs apparently identifying Russia special forces engaged in operations in Georgia in 2008, the Crimea peninsula in late February-early March, and in eastern Ukrainian cities over the past few weeks.
The juxtaposed images, provided by Ukrainian diplomats to the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), appeared to identify Russian soldiers – some of them circled in red and yellow – who had photographed in Georgia nearly six years ago and in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk recently.
At a press briefing in Washington on Monday, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the photographs, which have been publicly available on social media sites, were “further evidence of the connection between Russian and armed militants.”
When pressed for more information, Psaki reiterated that “there’s a strong connection between Russia and the armed militants that we’ve seen in eastern Ukraine and Crimea and other places.”
Moscow has strenuously denied allegations that the mystery men in Ukraine are Russian troops. At a carefully choreographed annual press briefing last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the reports as “all nonsense,” before asserting, “There are no Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine.”
But military experts examining the uniforms, markings and particularly the arms and equipment employed by the men have repeatedly linked the fighters to Russian security forces – echoing a commonly accepted view by the international community.
“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,” said Psaki on Sunday.
More careful in eastern Ukraine than Crimea
When they first appeared at airports and military bases on the Crimean peninsula earlier this year, the disciplined, “little green men” armed with modern weapons were easier to identify as Russian special forces.
Often, the men sported matching uniforms – without any insignia – and identical arms. They were driven in unmarked vehicles, but at times, Russian military license plates were spotted in photographs, according to military experts.
In eastern Ukraine though, the identities and origins of the armed men were more difficult to verify with Moscow insisting they were local self-defence groups.
Experts have suggested that Russia was more careful masking their identities in eastern Ukrainian cities, where the armed men have been accused of initially seizing public buildings before handing them over to local militias.
The latest photographs supplied by Ukrainian diplomats appear to corroborate this analysis.
Uniforms and equipment used by the armed men, such as helmets spotted in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass, were identical to the ones used by Russian special forces. The weapons, including the latest Kalashnikov AK-100 assault rifles and in some cases RPG-30 anti-tank grenade launchers, are also consistent with the arms used by Russian special forces.
Russian officials have dismissed allegations that weapons spotted in Crimea and eastern Ukraine were supplied by Moscow, noting that most arms available in the region are Russian.
‘Maskirovka’ from Chechnya to Georgia
But Russia has a long record of “maskirovka” (disguised warfare), which it has employed in conflicts such as Chechnya and the Caucuses. Putin, a former KGB agent, has been known to employ this military strategy in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The photographs are likely to increase the distrust and ratchet up the current war of words between Russia and the West as US Vice President Joe Biden meets with the interim the Ukrainian president and prime minister in Kiev on Tuesday.
Biden’s visit comes at a crucial time as Moscow has accused the interim authorities in Kiev of breaching a Geneva deal following a deadly Easter Sunday shootout at a checkpoint in Slovyansk.
The Geneva deal was reached by the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, US and in the EU in a bid to try to de-escalate the Ukrainian crisis.
Date created : 2014-04-22