DONETSK, Ukraine — For weeks, rumors have flown about the foreign fighters involved in the deepening conflict in Ukraine’s troubled east, each one stranger than the next: mercenaries from a U.S. company, Blackwater; Russian special-operations forces; and even Chechen soldiers of fortune.
Yet there they were Tuesday afternoon, resting outside a hospital here: Chechen men with automatic rifles, some bearing bloodstained bandages, protecting their wounded comrades in a city hospital after a firefight with the Ukrainian army.
“We received an invitation to help our brothers,” said one of the fighters in heavily accented Russian. He said he was from Grozny and had fought in the Chechen War that began in 1999. He said he arrived here last week with several dozen men to join a pro-Russian militia group.
The scene at the hospital was new evidence that fighters from Russia are an increasingly visible part of the conflict here, a development that raises questions about that country’s role in the unrest.
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Russia has denied that its regular soldiers are part of the conflict, and there is no evidence that they are. But motley assortments of fighters from other war zones that are intimately associated with Russia would be unlikely to surface against the powerful will of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, experts said.
The disclosure of Russian nationals among the fighters here muddies an already murky picture of the complex connections and allegiances that are beginning to form. While their presence does not draw a straight line to the Kremlin, it raises the possibility of a more subtle Russian game that could keep Ukraine unbalanced for years.
The revelation about foreign fighters received an unexpected official confirmation Tuesday, when the mayor of Donetsk, Alexander Lukyanchenko, said at least eight people with Russian passports were among the wounded rebels who had been taken to the city’s hospitals.
He said the Russians were from Moscow, and the cities of Grozny and Gudermes in Chechnya, a republic that is part of Russia. Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, was installed by the Kremlin to bring the region under control after bitter wars starting in the 1990s. On Tuesday, Kadyrov denied any connection to the fighters.
Lukyanchenko also said that residents of Crimea, the peninsula in the Black Sea that Russia seized in March, were also among the wounded.
The Russian government has said it would work with the government of Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian billionaire who was elected in a landslide Sunday and accepted congratulations from President Obama on Tuesday.
Poroshenko has pledged to crush the separatists who seized public buildings in two regions in eastern Ukraine in March. But Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, suggested Tuesday that ending the violence would be a criterion for improved relations, a line that could leave Ukraine’s new government in a tight spot.
Many here say the fighters speak to the shadowy nature of a conflict that sometimes seems manufactured.
“It’s irritating but not very surprising,” said Stanislav Kucherenko, 32, a massage therapist who lives near the airport and woke to the sound of shelling Tuesday. “It shows that this war is not clean. It is artificially created. If this is an uprising by the Donetsk People’s Republic, what are foreigners doing here?”
The men are Donetsk’s worst-kept secret. Several appeared on a CNN report at a military parade this weekend, and others were seen on a Vice News video, saying, “We are volunteers, Chechens, Afghans and Muslims who have come to protect Russia, to protect Russians, to protect the interests of this country.”
“They say they are patriots,” Kucherenko said of the foreign fighters. “I don’t think there are that many patriots.”
The Chechen fighter at the hospital, who declined to give his name, seemed to be losing his resolve. The unit had a commander who had given an order to stay and fight for the city. Otherwise, he said, he would be happy to go home. “I haven’t slept for four nights,” he said, resting his head on a wooden bench outside the hospital with a Kalashnikov across his knees.
Donetsk was mostly quiet Tuesday. Schools were closed, and residents were warned not to leave their homes. But signs of Monday’s battle remained. A truck that had been carrying rebel fighters and was hit by Ukrainians lay on its side.
Many pro-Russian residents praised the foreign fighters, saying they were all that stood between them and what they saw as a hostile Ukrainian force from Kiev. Yevgeny Matvichyuk, 26, who is from the embattled city of Slovyansk, said he had spoken with two foreign fighters, one from North Ossetia, a republic in Russia, and another from Tajikistan in Central Asia.
“They said, ‘We came from Russia to help you,’ ” he said, standing at the bus depot in Donetsk. “What’s wrong with that?”