Like apparitions, the gunmen in camouflage materialized outside a police station 90 miles west of the Russian border.
Within hours on Saturday, they seized a station in Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine, erecting barricades on roads leading in and out of the city. Fifty-five miles south, more masked men wearing unmarked uniforms approached Donetsk at dusk toting guns, bottles of water and boxes of cookies. In Kramatorsk, yet another police station went down.
This wasn’t an invasion. But it was a takeover.
Who were these masked men? Ukrainian separatists, or Russian interlopers? Were they part of a budding civil war, or Russian aggression?
“We are accused of having agents of our security services there,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed before. “We have no troops there by definition. We don’t have soldiers there, and we don’t have our agents there.” The Russian Foreign Ministry has also asserted: “Russia has said many times that it is not conducting any unusual or unplanned activities significant in terms of military issues on its territory in the area of the Ukrainian border.”
This was just one of the many lies Russia has peddled in the last two months, the U.S. State Department alleged Sunday in this listicle called, “Russian Fiction the Sequel: 10 more false claims about Ukraine.”
The State Department is not alone in its claims.
Russia says there are no Russian “agents” in Ukraine. Evidence suggesting the masked men aren’t Ukrainian citizens begins with their weaponry. Many of the men in camouflage lug AK-100 rifles — which no Ukrainian force uses, the Kyiv Post reports.
Many surmise the operations aren’t extemporaneous. They’re calculated. They’re tactical. They’re organized. Videos taken — which you can watch here, here and here — show disciplined troops. Plus, the location of the takeovers appear strategic. Their deployment offers control over vital supply routes interconnecting eastern Ukraine. But perhaps most convincing of all is that the communication radio frequencies being used by these “non-Russian” forces “can be traced back to the Russian Federation,” according to the Kyiv Post.
Russia says protests in eastern Ukraine enjoy widespread support. One week ago, after several demonstrations called for independence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the Ukrainian government against cracking down on dissidents. He said they were airing “legitimate demands” of eastern Ukraine’s population.
If recent polls provide any clues, however, those “legitimate demands” do not represent how most eastern Ukrainians think. This wide-ranging survey conducted by Institute of Social Research and Political Analysis shows that only 4 percent of the nation’s east and just 2 percent of the south wants Ukraine “divided into several countries.” A separate poll found that more than 65 percent of the eastern city of Donetsk wants to remain unified with Ukraine.
Russia says there would be a partial drawdown of troops along the Ukrainian border. In early April, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and informed her that he had ordered a partial drawdown, according to Merkel’s spokesman. NATO estimates and satellite images, however, reveal that as many as 40,000 Russian troops have amassed at the border, along with “fast jets” and helicopters. Russia claims the photographs were from 2013.
Russia says ethnic Russians feel threatened in Ukraine. This allegation formed the bedrock of much of Russia’s rhetoric concerning Crimea. Putin framed the annexation not as a military incursion, but as a rescue mission. Putin says he has reserved the right to use force to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
There’s one problem: According to the Institute of Social Research and Political Analysis, most “Russian-speaking citizens in Ukraine don’t feel threatened.” Roughly 85 percent of Russian-speaking respondents said they were not “under pressure or threat because of their language.” Two-thirds of ethnic Russians felt the same — not even those living in the east or south, which includes Crimea.
Russia says Ukrainians are behind the pro-Russian demonstrations. According to the U.S. State Department, “Russian internet sites openly are recruiting volunteers to travel from Russia to Ukraine and incite violence.” The Washington Post couldn’t immediately find any evidence that Russians have been asked to “incite violence.” But the BBC reports that pages have cropped up on VKontakte, the Russian-language social network, asking for Russians to cross over into Ukraine and offer “moral support.” Within one week, the page attracted 7,000 followers.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. State Department has released such a listicle. It did the same in early March, calling it President Putin’s Fiction. Russia’s Foreign Ministry was outraged by it, according to the New York Times.
“The State Department is trying to play on a shamelessly one-sided interpretation of events, as if there was not plentiful evidence of atrocities committed by radical nationalists, including the massacre of inconvenient people captured on video cameras, or the murder by provocateur snipers,” it said. “We will not stoop to debate with low-grade propaganda.”