MOSCOW (Reuters) – Unidentified, heavily-armed strangers with Russian accents have appeared in an eastern Ukrainian village, arousing residents’ suspicions despite Moscow’s denials that its troops have deliberately infiltrated the frontier.
Two witnesses told Reuters on Tuesday that the dozens of men, who arrived at the weekend and set up a road block, were not local and had military ration packs marked with Russian writing.
While they wore no insignia, their appearance or behavior bore striking similarities to a group of Russian troops detained in Ukraine in the past few days, and to Russian forces which occupied Crimea earlier this year, the witnesses said.
The men had white arm bands, the same identifying mark that was worn by 10 men captured a few kilometers (miles) away by Ukrainian forces and who, in video released on Tuesday, said they were Russian paratroopers.
Ukraine accuses Russia of sending weapons and soldiers to fight alongside pro-Moscow rebels in the country’s east, a charge the Kremlin has denied throughout the five-month conflict.
If it turns out that Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, that could deepen yet further the crisis, which is the focus of talks on Tuesday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart in Minsk.
Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said in a Twitter post: “The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counter-offensive may be underway.”
Kolosky is about 7 km (4 miles) from Dzerkalniy, a settlement where Ukrainian officials said they had detained the 10 Russian troops featured in the video footage.
Russian news agencies cited a source in the Russian defense ministry as saying the paratroopers had strayed into Ukraine by mistake during an exercise. One of the men said in video footage released by Ukraine’s security services that they had been instructed to put on white arm-bands.
The two witnesses who spoke to Reuters said the armed men did not have any insignia on their uniforms or vehicles that would explicitly identify them as Russian troops, but they said there were more subtle signs.
Dmitry Chistyukhin, a resident of Kolosky, said some of the men were trading their military-issue ready-to-eat meals with villagers for home-made preserved fruit and vegetables. He said the writing on the ration packs was Russian, not Ukrainian.
They had painted over identifying marks on their military vehicles with white circles, he added.
When residents approached their checkpoint and asked if they were allowed to travel on to the next village, called Komsomolske, the armed men asked, according to Chistyukhin: “Where’s that?”
“The people at the new checkpoint, they were polite military men wearing green. Definitely not Ukrainian. They’re definitely not from around here,” he said.
‘Polite green men’ was the tongue-in-cheek term coined by many Russians to describe Russian soldiers, with identifying insignia removed, who arrived in Ukraine’s Crimea region before Moscow annexed it in March.
Another witness, Alexei, who was in Kolosky on Monday, said that the armed men, when asked who they were, told residents only that they had come “to protect them”.
That was an answer given by Russian military officers after they first seized state buildings in Crimea.
“It looks like direct invasion,” said Alexei.
He said he and a friend counted what they said was 38 armored personnel carriers, 2 fuelling trucks and numerous military transport vehicles full of people in Kolosky and the immediate vicinity.
Heavy shelling around the village began as soon as the armored cars arrived, though Alexei said it was not clear who was doing the shelling.
Both said they first saw new military hardware on Sunday, which included anti-aircraft systems as well as artillery guns.