Ukraine: Photos show undercover Russian troops
(CNN) — Ukrainian officials say they have photographic proof that Russian forces are operating in eastern Ukraine.
A dossier obtained Monday by CNN shows what Ukrainian officials say are images of well-equipped gunmen operating in eastern Ukraine who look similar to photographs of Russian forces taken in Crimea, Russia and during Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.
CNN cannot independently confirm the photographs, some of which were first published in the New York Times.
The revelations follow reporting last week by CNN’s Arwa Damon citing Ukrainian security officials as saying they had arrested a Russian military officer and a woman Ukrainian officials say is a Russian intelligence agent.
Moscow has disavowed any involvement in the takeover of government buildings in eastern Ukraine or other acts by often-masked pro-Russian gunmen.
But the photographs — accepted as genuine by President Barack Obama’s administration — appeared to lend credence to claims by Ukrainian officials that Russian forces have been dispatched in eastern Ukraine to provoke a military confrontation.
If genuine, the photographs also back up western leaders who have claimed Russia’s involvement. Last week, NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove wrote on the alliance’s blog that what pro-Russian groups have described as an organic uprising is in reality a “well planned and organized” military operation orchestrated by Moscow.
“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,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki told CNN on Monday.
The question of whether Russia is involved in the unrest roiling eastern Ukraine is crucial as European observers try to enforce an agreement reached last week to lower tensions in the region by organizing the withdrawal of forces from government buildings and other facilities.
Ukraine provided the photos to those observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, according to the briefing dossier obtained by CNN’s Elise Labott.
One image shows a gunman with a long beard during an assault on a police station in Kramatorsk who appears similar to a Russian special forces member photographed during the Russian invasion of Georgia.
Another shows gunmen photographed occupying administrative buildings in Slaviask who appear similar to men pictured in what Ukrainian officials described as a “family photos” of a Russian sabotage and reconnaissance unit.
Shootout raises tensions
The revelations follow a fatal shootout early Sunday at a pro-Russian roadblock near the town of Slaviansk.
According to pro-Russian groups there, gunmen in three or four vehicles opened fire on a roadblock west of town.
Six people died, according to the new pro-Russian administration in Slaviansk.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said three people died.
Pro-Russian leaders briefly displayed what they said was the body of one of the attackers and what they described as an identity tag and card indicating the attack was carried out by the ultranationalist Ukrainian Right Sector party. They also displayed substantial amounts of ammunition and U.S. cash.
The Right Sector denied any of its members were in the area.
In the hours after the attack, the self-declared mayor of Slaviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, called for a Russian “peacekeeping force” to protect against the national guard and the Right Sector.
The Ukrainian State Security Service said in a statement that “armed offenders and saboteurs” who are terrorizing the local population in Slaviansk had “resorted to cynical provocation.” Ukrainian officials say that Russia has sent special forces troops to Ukraine to provoke tensions.
On Sunday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Putin dreams of restoring the Soviet Union, which once controlled much of Eastern Europe before disintegrating in 1991.
“And every day, he goes further and further,” Yatsenyuk said. “And God knows where is the final destination.”
The government of acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov has talked tough but done little to curb pro-Russian activities in the east, possibly afraid that a crackdown could send Russian forces across the border. The occupation of buildings continued in about a dozen towns and cities across eastern Ukraine.
International monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met Monday with pro-Russian leaders in Slaviansk but no breakthroughs were reported.
The monitors were called for in the agreement among Russia, the United States and the European Union last week that was meant to reduce tensions in the region, an area that while part of Ukraine has long looked toward Russia for cultural and economic ties.
In three towns, pro-Russian protesters and militants have made it clear to CNN they have no intention of moving until the “illegal” government in Kiev also moves out of official buildings.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed those sentiments Monday, saying that Ukrainian officials were not implementing the agreement negotiated in Geneva, Switzerland.
“On the contrary, not a single step has been taken by those who have seized power in Kiev to eliminate the reasons of this deep crisis inside Ukraine,” he said.
Russia has said before that it holds no sway over pro-Russian protesters and militants.
Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday that he’s seen progress. He had just met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia and the ambassador who heads the OSCE’s special monitoring mission, along with his European Union and Russian counterparts.
“I think we all reaffirmed today in this setting our collective commitment to trying to make the Geneva framework a success,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “There are obviously some real challenges at this point,” including the violence in Slaviansk.
“But we also believe that there has been some progress. I’m seeing reports this morning that at least one of these (occupied) government buildings now has a Ukrainian flag flying over it,” he said. “And the OSCE has monitors on the ground who are reaching out, engaging with local political elites, seeing if there’s a way to de-escalate the crisis.”
There is “no military solution” to the crisis, Pyatt said. “It has to be solved through diplomacy.”
Biden visits Kiev
Meanwhile, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived Monday in Kiev to discuss the situation in eastern Ukraine and deliver a new aid package aimed at shoring up the Ukrainian government.
The bundle includes new economic and energy aid as well as governance assistance, a senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing Monday.
It’s likely to sit well with Ukrainian leaders struggling to keep their country going amid widespread financial problems and a growing showdown with Russia over that country’s annexation of Crimea and troubles in Ukraine’s pro-Russian east.
“We are very happy with the West’s and America’s support, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told CNN. “Anything on top of that would be greatly appreciated.”
On the streets of Kiev, ordinary citizens said they know there’s only so much the United States can do. Some said they’d like to see the U.S. send troops.
“Our army is very bad. Maybe the U.S. can give us some military help,” one Ukrainian said.
But others say that’s too much, even with pro-Russian forces occupying government buildings in the east and thousands of Russian troops massed along the Ukrainian border.
“I think we want consultations, but no American troops,” another Ukrainian citizen told CNN.
U.S. officials have ruled out the possibility of deploying U.S. forces to Ukraine.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week that the U.S. will, however, continue its beefed-up presence in Poland because of the crisis. Among fellow members of NATO, Poland has expressed particular concern about Russian plans in Ukraine.
The Defense Department is also sending some nonlethal aid to Ukrainian security forces, including medial supplies, helmets, shelters and water purification equipment.
By Michael Pearson and Ed Payne
CNN’s Tim Lister, Elena Sandyrev, Phil Black, Alla Eshchenko and Lena Kashkarova contributed to this report.