KIEV, Ukraine — 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 Russia have closely followed each accusation by Ukrainian officials that the world was witnessing a stealthy invasion by Russian forces.
Photographs and descriptions from eastern Ukraine endorsed by the Obama administration Sunday 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.
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 U.S. officials have continued to make that case,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said Sunday.
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Russia’s role in eastern Ukraine has a critical bearing on the agreement reached Thursday in Geneva among Russian, Ukrainian, U.S. and European diplomats to ease the crisis. U.S. officials have said 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.
Russian officials insist that their forces are in no way involved, and that Strelkov does not exist, at least not as a Russian operative sent to Ukraine with orders to stir up trouble.
“It’s all nonsense,” President Vladimir Putin said Thursday during a four-hour question-and-answer show on Russian television. “There are no Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine.”
A challenge to the shaky truce emerged early Sunday, when a shootout at a checkpoint run by pro-Russian militants near Slovyansk left at least three people dead.
It was unclear whether the shooting was an event staged by provocateurs, an accident or an attack on pro-Russian militants. The difficulty in sorting out what happened will resonate far beyond Slovyansk, the linchpin of a string of midsize towns north of the regional capital, Donetsk, that are controlled by pro-Russian militants.
Meanwhile, pro-Russia activists who have seized government buildings in at least 10 towns across eastern Ukraine 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 during years of conflict in the former Soviet sphere, Ukrainian and U.S. officials say.
John Schindler, a former National Security Agency (NSA) 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.”
One country, Schindler noted in an article last year, that particularly excels at special war is Russia, which carried out its first post-Soviet war to regain control of rebellious Chechnya in 1994 by sending in a column of armored 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, the shaky new Ukrainian government has been left to battle phantoms, first in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine, where previously fringe pro-Russia political activists have had their fortunes lifted by small but heavily armed groups of masked men.
In Slovyansk, the green men have worked hard to blend in with locals but have occasionally let the mask slip. When a woman sidled up to one of the masked gunmen last week and asked where he was from, he initially said he was “from Russia.” When pressed, he said he was “from New Russia,” a 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 1 million-man army will be here.”
Heightening skepticism of Russia’s denials is that Putin, after denying any Russian link to the masked gunmen who seized government buildings in Crimea and blockaded Ukrainian military bases there, last week changed his story and said: “Of course, Russian servicemen did back the Crimean self-defense forces.”
More direct evidence of a Russian hand in eastern Ukraine is contained in a dossier of photographs provided by Ukraine to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a Vienna-based organization monitoring the situation in Donetsk and other parts of the country. It features pictures taken in eastern Ukraine of unidentified gunmen and an earlier photograph of what looks like the same men appearing in a group shot of a Russian military unit in Russia. One set of photos shows what appears to be the same gunman in pictures taken in the Crimean annexation and more recently in Slovyansk.
Another character in Ukraine’s case against Russia is Strelkov, the supposed military intelligence officer who Kiev says took part in a furtive Russian operation to prepare for the annexation of Crimea and, more recently, in insurgent action in Slovyansk.
No photos have emerged of Strelkov, but the Security Service of Ukraine, the successor organization to what used to be Ukraine’s local branch of the KGB, has released a sketch of what it says is his face.