Russian soldiers 'on leave' fighting in eastern Ukraine
Thousands of Russian troops are fighting with separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, according to a rebel commander who told the BBC that the Russians were all either recently retired from active service - or on leave.
The BBC report that Alexander Zakharchenko told Russian television that he estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 Russians had joined the ranks, and claimed that they were either former Russian service members or current military personnel on leave. However, he also insisted that any Russians who went to flight did so voluntarily and not on orders from superiors in Moscow.
Ukraine and its Western allies have repeatedly accused Russia of providing weapons and training to the rebels, who declared independence from Kiev in two eastern districts this past April following Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Moscow, in turn has repeatedly denied the accusations.
Zakharchenko's admission came as the rebels appeared to have captured the strategic town of Novoazovsk in southeastern Ukraine. On Thursday morning, an Associated Press journalist saw rebel checkpoints at the outskirts and was told he could not enter. One of the rebels said there was no fighting in the town.
Novoazovsk, which lies along the road connecting Russia to the Russia-annexed Crimean peninsula, had come under shelling for three days, with the rebels entering on Wednesday. The southeastern portion of Ukraine along the Azov Sea previously had escaped the fighting engulfing areas to the north. The loss of Novoazovsk could open the way for the rebels to advance on the much larger port of Mariupol.
The new southeastern front raised fears that the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea. If successful, it could give them or Russia control over the entire Sea of Azov and the gas and mineral riches that energy experts believe it contains. Ukraine already has lost roughly half its coastline, several major ports and significant Black Sea mineral rights in March when Russia annexed Crimea.
Ukraine government forces had all but defeated the rebels to the north, squeezing them into two tiny pockets in Donetsk and Luhansk. This new front makes it a whole new ballgame.
This is a slow motion invasion by Russia. The fiction of the "volunteer" is useful for Vladimir Putin as it gives the rest of the world an excuse not to sanction his regime. Outside of NATO, most of the rest of the world will undoubtedly accept the lie so that they won't have to act.
The last time the "volunteer" gambit was used on a large scale was the Korean war when 250,000 members of the "Chinese Volunteer Army" crossed the border into South Korea on October 19, 1950 in order to stave off a complete North Korean collapse.
Some estimates of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil fighting for the separatists top 10,000. Accurate counts are difficult because ethnic Russians who live in Ukraine have traveled to Russia to get training and weapons, then recross the border to join their units. Some Russian artillery units firing into Ukraine from Russian soil may, in fact, be separatists. Putin is using this confusion to his diplomatic and domestic political advantage. The Russian people don't want a war with Ukraine and as long as Putin can maintain this fiction, he will enjoy tremendous support from the Russian people.