Russians troops fighting in Ukraine? Naw. They’re just on ‘vacation.’

A separatist leader in Eastern Ukraine has a secret he’d like to share. There are Russian troops inside Ukraine fighting alongside the rebels and against Ukrainian troops. But wait. They’re really just freelancing while on vacation, according to his comment in a Reuters report.

“Among us are fighting serving [Russian] soldiers, who would rather take their vacation not on a beach but with us, among brothers, who are fighting for their freedom,” Alexander Zakharchenko said in a reported interview with a Russian state television station.


Men who identified themselves as Russian servicemen in still images from a video released on Aug. 26, 2014, by the Ukrainian Security Service of what it said was a group of Russian soldiers captured on its territory. (Reuters)

Except for the Russian government itself, they’re not even pretending anymore. Though don’t tell the Russians that. Just this week, after being confronted with video evidence that appeared to contradict their story, they maintained the charade.

Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, agreed this morning that Russian troops have now entered the fight. “Russian supplied tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and multiple rocket launchers have been insufficient to defeat Ukraine’s armed forces,” he wrote. “So now an increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory. Russia has also sent its newest air defense systems including the SA-22 into eastern Ukraine and is now directly involved in the fighting.”

This comes after Tuesday’s news that ten Russian paratroopers were caught in Ukraine. The soldiers quickly conceded in a video that a) they were Russian, and b) they had been ordered to cross the border. The Russian Defense Ministry, for its part, said they’d wandered across the border accidentally. “The soldiers really did participate in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossed it by accident on an unmarked section, and as far as we understand showed no resistance to the armed forces of Ukraine when they were detained,” the Guardian quoted one Russian defense ministry source saying.

This of course wasn’t the first time Russia has walked back or denied something that directly challenged the veracity of their purported non-involvement. After the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down, with a weapon many suspect was Russian-made, U.S. officials accused Russia of shooting artillery across the border and into Ukraine, Reuters reported. “We have new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to separatist forces in Ukraine, and have evidence that Russia is firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainian military positions,” State Department spokesman Marie Harf said.

What evidence? Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted out several satellite images showing the artillery strikes.

Then NATO said it spotted Russia sending an “incursion” into Ukraine. “Last night we saw a Russian incursion, a crossing of the Ukrainian border,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, according to Reuters. “It just confirms the fact that we see a continuous flow of weapons and fighters from Russia into eastern Ukraine and it is a clear demonstration of continued Russian involvement.”

Russia’s response to such accusations: denial. “We no longer pay attention to the allegations made by Mr. Rasmussen and his press secretary,” a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said. “There is no sense to comment on them.”

But as the fighting threatens to balloon into a full-blown war between Ukraine and Russia, it may become more difficult to maintain the rhetorical sleight of hand.

On Thursday morning, Reuters’ Richard Balmforth was suspicious after separatist forces reportedly took more strategic ground near the rebel-held city of Donetsk. “The sudden reverses for the Ukrainian military appeared to confirm the arrival of Russian forces to support the separatists,” he wrote, quoting a local soldier fighting for the Ukrainian government.

“There is military equipment … which came across the border two days ago from Russia,” he said. “The equipment is carrying the flags of the [Donetsk People's Republic], but they are regular Russian forces.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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