Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we turn to Russia's involvement in the crisis in Ukraine.
Finally good news out of Ukraine. After five months of fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, representatives of both parties reached an agreement on Friday to end hostilities and negotiate a permanent settlement.
Looming large over the negotiations was the question of Russian involvement in the conflict and western leaders' accusations that Moscow had systematically worked to deepen the Ukrainian crisis.
The extent of Russia's involvement in separatist violence in past months has been fiercely contested. Russia denies it has had any hand at all in the violence, while Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Moscow of having sent thousands of troops and military equipment across the border.
To better understand reports of a Russian presence in east Ukraine, The WorldPost turned to Elena Racheva, a special correspondent for Russia's Novaya Gazeta opposition newspaper. Racheva says that she has found "convincing" evidence that Russian troops have been sent to fight in Ukraine.
Who are the main groups fighting the government in east Ukraine?
I had the chance to talk to some of the rebels in the Russian town of Donetsk [not to be confused with the Ukrainian town of Donetsk]. About three-quarters of them were originally from Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions and a quarter of them were Russian citizens. Many of the rebels from both of these groups had fought in the Russian wars in Chechnya or Afghanistan. They wanted to fight again. They had blindly trusted Russian media and repeated Russian TV stories about Ukrainian forces using phosphorus bombs and children being crucified.
Relatives of Russian soldiers told me that while soldiers were occasionally sent on short-term missions inside Ukraine in July, the situation started to change at the beginning of August, when the Ukrainian army was able to push back the separatist rebels. Russia then started sending in larger regiments and military equipment, although without any identifying markings or license plates. I have no idea what the current proportion of Ukrainian separatist volunteers to Russian troops is. No journalist does.
Does this mean that Russia is actually sending forces to Ukraine?
Some soldiers were going voluntarily in June and July. Their relatives told me that army chiefs offered them big salaries to retire from the military and go to Ukraine as "volunteers" without official documents, although only a small number of soldiers agreed to do this.
The situation changed later on, and soldiers are now forced to go. Usually it works like this -- the regiment is sent to the Russian-Ukrainian border for "training" and after a while they get the order to go into Ukraine. I know of at least one case when soldiers who refused were threatened with prosecution.
Sometimes the soldiers aren't even told where are they going. For example, the uncle of one seriously wounded paratrooper told me that on Aug. 3, his nephew was told they were being deployed from Ulyanovsk in central Russia to Chebarkul in the east. After a few hours they realized they weren't going east at all, but west towards Ukraine. He didn’t jump out of the car and didn’t refuse to go into Ukraine, but I doubt he could be considered a volunteer.
What evidence is there that Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine?
The evidence is simple but convincing -- soldiers who have been killed, wounded or captured. I personally talked to the relatives of paratroopers from the 331st regiment of Russia's 98th Guards Airborne Division, who were killed and captured about 20 km [about 12 miles] inside Ukraine. I also spoke to the family of a soldier from the 31st Air Assault Brigade from Ulyanovsk who lost his leg in a fight in Ukraine, and the mother of a soldier from Division 2777 based in Chechnya, who died near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne. Russian officials admitted that troops had been captured, but President Vladimir Putin said they got lost while patrolling the border.
How is this being covered in the Russian media?
Quite poorly. There are not many free media outlets that dare to write about such things. State media only publishes the official version of the events. They tell their audience that Russia is not fighting in Ukraine, that soldiers captured there got lost on the border and that those who were killed have not died because they won't admit these men ever existed.
The independent media do try to present all the evidence they can find. For example, one small regional newspaper called Pskovskaya Guberniya reported on the secret funeral of two paratroopers from the town of Pskov who had been killed in Ukraine. This local newspaper with three staff writers became the first media outlet to prove Russian casualties in this war. The newspaper's website went down within a few hours of publishing the story because of the huge traffic. A few days later the newspaper's publisher Lev Shlosberg was beaten up near his house. He's still in the hospital with a broken nose and serious concussion. He says the attack was revenge for their reporting.
How have Russians reacted to reports of their troops fighting in Ukraine?
Russian society is terribly split. After I reported on the death of a 20-year-old Russian lance sergeant in Ukraine hundreds of people contacted his mother on social media. One-third offered condolences, one-third accused her of lying, and another third, mostly Ukrainians, said he deserved to die for fighting in Ukraine. She was hysterical and I felt terrible -- neither of us expected that level of hatred. Each third reveals something about Russia's reaction. Some people, like myself, feel a mixture of shame, horror, anger, regret and remorse. Some feel pure hatred towards the troops. And others just trust state media and don’t believe its happening at all. I’m afraid the last group is the biggest. But as more and more evidence that Russia is involved in this war comes out, people are beginning the painful process of accepting this. It will not be easy, and it will take us some time to move from denial to understanding, acceptance and regret.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.