In his annual year-end press conference on December 17, President Vladimir Putin admitted the presence of Russian military personnel in Ukraine. In response to a question posed by a Ukrainian journalist about two Russian military intelligence officers captured in Ukraine and now on trial, Mr. Putin said: “We never said there were no people there who carried out certain tasks, including in the military sphere.” He insisted, however, that this was not the same as regular Russian troops. Of course, Russia has repeatedly denied that its troops are in Ukraine.
Reuters reported the news as follows: “After years of denials, captured Russian soldiers and indiscreet military selfies, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally ‘fessed up to the presence of Russian military personnel in Ukraine on Thursday.” Similarly, The Guardian noted: “Vladimir Putin has for the first time admitted the presence of Russian military specialists in east Ukraine. Russia has repeatedly denied a military presence in the conflict, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
Our readers – indeed, most of the world – know all about the evidence of Russian troops and materiel in Ukraine. Remember the “little green men” who appeared in Crimea? The tourists on leave from the military who went off to fight in Ukraine’s east? Remember the Nemtsov report on Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine? Released in May, it noted that Russia had spent at least $1 billion on the war in Ukraine during its first 10 months, documented the use of Russian state funds to pay Russian citizens to fight in Ukraine and detailed how the Russian government paid off families of Russian soldiers killed in the war to ensure their silence. Later that month a new presidential decree classified military losses during special operations in peacetime as “state secrets.” To be sure, the Kremlin denied that this had anything at all to do with Ukraine.
The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group was more blunt in its reporting of the Russian president’s comments at his news conference: “In fact, Putin was, as with Crimea, lying. Russia has persistently denied the presence of any military personnel in Donbas. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that the two military intelligence [GRU] officers Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov, captured in Donbas had left military service last year. The two men were placed under enormous pressure and have both now changed their story to that given by the Defense Ministry, admittedly without any credibility given the number of times they freely admitted to being from GRU.”
The Kharkiv group also underscored that Mr. Putin gave short shrift to the part of the question having to do with prisoner exchanges. The reporter, UNIAN correspondent Roman Tsymbalyuk, had asked: “Will you be exchanging them [the two Russian officers] for Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov, Gennady Afanasyev, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Stanislav Klykh…” The rights group noted that the Russian president’s answer was quite telling: “He pointed out that Tsymbalyuk had mentioned ‘only’ two men ‘whom you offer me and then a long list of people whom you want to exchange them for. Firstly, an exchange must be equal.’ After that beginning – more appropriate for an abductor negotiating a ransom than a president – he suggested that they would need to ‘sit down quietly and discuss this,’ and even choked out the words ‘with the president of Ukraine.’ He then recalled the Minsk agreement, pointing out quite correctly that it entails an all for all exchange. He claimed that it was the Ukrainian side that was violating this by bringing criminal charges against Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov. He ducked the rest of the question…”
Interestingly, the same week as Mr. Putin’s press conference made news, The New York Times published a news story about how the USSR had used “comrade tourists,” i.e. soldiers secretly sent to war zones to help Moscow’s allies, and a new campaign by a Russian veterans’ group to gain recognition for that secret military service. “It is an effort with clear implications for the veterans of Russia’s more recent secret deployments, to Ukraine and Syria under various guises – as so-called green men in uniforms without insignia, ‘vacationers’ in eastern Ukraine or humanitarian aid workers in Syria,” wrote Andrew Kramer of The Times.
Meanwhile, the Russian invasion in Ukraine’s east continues. During the period of December 20-22, over 160 attacks were reported. Furthermore, despite a ceasefire that was to take effect on December 23, Russian-backed militants fired on Ukrainian positions over 30 times. The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine reported that “near Popasne (Luhansk Oblast), Russian-terrorist forces opened fire with Grads” (truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers).
Thus, there is no doubt that Mr. Putin’s personnel continue to carry out “certain military tasks” and that the provisions of the Minsk agreements are no closer to being implemented.