Two Russian special forces soldiers captured in eastern Ukraine will be prosecuted for "terrorist crimes" committed during a mission of sabotage that killed a government soldier, Ukraine's State Security Service chief said Monday.
The capture of the two wounded men, one of whom is shown confessing in a video posted by a Ukrainian lawmaker, has delivered fresh proof to the embattled government in Kiev that Russian forces are providing arms and backing to the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
The interception of the Russians coincided with reinvigorated U.S.-Russian diplomacy following Secretary of State John F. Kerry's meeting last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Both pledged to use their influence with the combatants in Ukraine to salvage a 3-month-old cease-fire and peace plan that has all but collapsed.
Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland subsequently was dispatched to build on the effort to shore up the peace plan brokered by European mediators in the Belarus capital of Minsk by meeting with diplomatic counterparts in Kiev and Moscow.
"President Putin told Secretary Kerry that he is fully committed to Minsk implementation," Nuland noted after her weekend meetings with the Kiev leadership. "It’s now important that all sides walk the walk, not just talk the talk."
Nuland met in Moscow on Monday with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and human rights advocate Lyudmila Alekseyeva. Nuland told journalists before heading back to Washington that she had been assured by the Ukrainian government that the captured Russians were being "well taken care of" and would be allowed visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
But the capture of apparent members of the elite Russian special forces in the front-line town of Shchastia in the separatist-controlled Luhansk region could cast doubt on the sincerity of Putin's professed support for a Feb. 12 peace plan agreed to by Ukraine, Russia and the separatists.
"The leadership of the Russian Federation will have difficulty saying that these guys just got lost," said Col. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council. He was alluding to the capture last summer of 10 Russian paratroopers in eastern Ukraine who Putin said must have accidentally crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border.
Nevertheless, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated Moscow's denial of involvement in the war that has killed more than 6,100 in little more than a year.
"We have said repeatedly that there are no Russian troops in Donbas," Peskov told journalists in Moscow, referring to the eastern Ukraine industrial region in the Don River basin.
A video posted by Ukrainian lawmaker Anton Herashchenko showed one of the captive Russians, who identified himself as Sgt. Alexander Alexandrov, answering questions from his Kiev hospital bed about the spying unit he said had been in eastern Ukraine since March 6.
"We were discovered. I was wounded in the leg as I tried to get away," Alexandrov told his interrogator.
At a briefing of journalists in Kiev, Security Service director Valentyn Nalyvaichenko said investigators had been told by the Russians that they were part of a 14-man sabotage and reconnaissance group from a Russian special forces base in the Volga River city of Tolyatti. Nalyvaichenko said they would be prosecuted for "terrorist activity and terrorist crimes."
Although the Minsk agreement has reduced fighting and slowed the rate of casualties, violations of the cease-fire occur almost daily and provisions for the pullback of heavy weapons, prisoner exchanges, regional elections and enhanced autonomy for the separatist-controlled territory have failed to materialize.
On Monday, Lysenko said three Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the previous 24 hours, including one in the operation that captured the two Russians.
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