Ukrainian officials said Tuesday that 10 Russian paratroopers were captured in battle-torn eastern Ukraine and posted videotaped confessions of some soldiers in the strongest evidence to date of a Kremlin hand in the separatist battle.
The capture of the Russian soldiers coincided with the first meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, since the candy magnate was inaugurated in June.
At the gathering of regional leaders in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, there had been little expectation of a breakthrough in the 5-month-old battle between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russia separatists, and none occurred.
Putin and Poroshenko laid out starkly differing visions of how to end the conflict, and the Kremlin leader’s threats of retaliation against Ukraine for anticipated economic damage from Ukraine’s new trade relationship with the European Union did nothing to ease tension between the two leaders.
Putin insisted at the meeting of the Kremlin-initiated Eurasian Customs Union that there would be no military solution to Ukraine's fight against separatists who have occupied government buildings in two key regions since April. The uprising against rule from Kiev was inspired by the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in February and annexation the next month.
“We are ready to exchange opinions on the current urgent crisis situation in Ukraine, which, we are convinced, cannot be solved through further escalation of the military scenario ... [or] without a peaceful dialogue of its representatives,” Putin said at the Minsk meeting, which was also attended by the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus and representatives of the 28-nation European Union.
Poroshenko responded with the assertion that the conflict can’t be resolved until Russia's ill-concealed support for the separatist militants ceases.
“The prime condition for a stabilization of the situation in Donbass is the establishment of effective control over the Russian-Ukrainian border. It is vital to do everything to stop deliveries of equipment and arms to the fighters,” Poroshenko said, referring to the battlegrounds in the heavily industrialized basin west of the Don River.
But release of the video confessions of the detained paratroopers appeared to undermine Putin's steadfast claim that Russia is not behind the separatist uprising that has killed more than 2,000 people since April.
In videos posted on YouTube and the Facebook page of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against the separatists, the Russian captives are heard to say they were told only that they were being sent on a “business trip” from their base in Kostroma, about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, to southern Russia’s Rostov region, across the border from the embattled Donetsk and Luhansk areas of eastern Ukraine.
“This is not our war. I don’t know why we are here,” said Alexei Generalov, one of the captives whose interrogation was posted on the Internet by the Ukrainian Security Service. Like the other three filmed for apparent propaganda purposes, he criticized the Russian media portrayal of life in the conflict-racked regions as “lies” suggesting organized repression of the Russian-speaking majority.
The Russian paratroopers were intercepted in the town of Amvrosiyivka, in the Donetsk region, about 20 miles west of the Russian border, the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council reported.
Russia's state-controlled RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unnamed Defense Ministry official as saying the Russian troops “were patrolling the border and most likely crossed it by accident.”
“It wasn't a mistake, but a special mission they were carrying out,” Col. Andriy Lysenko of the national security committee told reporters at his daily briefing in Kiev.
Lysenko also reported that 12 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the previous 24 hours and at least 19 wounded. He said pro-Russia separatists had for the second day in a row fired on government positions in the town of Novoazovsk, a port on the Sea of Azov where the paratroopers’ armored column was seized Monday, apparently en route to the city of Mariupol.
The Sea of Azov ports have become more important to Ukraine's eastern industrial centers since the loss of shipping facilities on the Crimean peninsula. Though part of the Donetsk region, the inland sea coast had been exposed to little violence until recently.
Novoazovsk and Mariupol lie on the coastal road running from Russia’s Rostov region to the Crimean peninsula, and control of that thoroughfare would provide Russia with a land bridge to its recently annexed territory on the Black Sea.
At the Customs Union meeting in Minsk, Putin said Poroshenko that his entry into a trade relationship with the European Union threatens to cost the Russian economy as much as $2.8 billion a year. Ukraine will be able to import high-quality European products without tariffs and sell them to Russian consumers at prices that Russia’s inefficient manufacturers will be unable to match. If the anticipated losses occur, Putin warned, Russia will retaliate with trade measures against Ukraine.
It was Putin's insistence last year that Ukraine remain economically integrated with Russia that prompted then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich to cancel the EU association agreement, sparking a rebellion that eventually drove him from office in February. Poroshenko revived it and signed the agreement shortly after taking office.
Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern regions were supportive of Yanukovich's pro-Kremlin policies and fearful of the EU alliance for its likelihood of leading to closure of the region's unprofitable heavy industrial enterprises.
Putin invaded Crimea to secure Russia's Black Sea fleet port and other strategic assets, and pro-Russia separatists, allegedly backed by Russian special forces and mercenaries, have been fighting against rule from Kiev since spring in an effort to wrest their territories from Ukraine as well.
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Aug. 26, 4:33 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout.