Two suspected Russian soldiers captured in eastern Ukraine have said they were on a mission for Russia's military when they were seized, contradicting Moscow's claim that the two men were not active servicemen.
In video published on May 22 on the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta's website, one of the men, Aleksandr Aleksandrov, said his capture by Ukrainian forces over the weekend demonstrates that Russian military personnel were operating in areas of eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists are fighting Kyiv's forces.
"It's just not in [Russian authorities'] interest to admit it," Aleksandrov said from a hospital bed in Kyiv, where he has been held since he and another Russian man, Yevgeny Yerofeyev, were captured by the Ukrainian military.
The Kremlin denies accusations by Kyiv and the West that it is providing weapons, training, and personnel to rebels in eastern Ukraine who are involved in a conflict that has killed more than 6,100 people since April 2014.
Russia's Defense Ministry says Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev have served in the military but were not employed by the state at the time of their capture.
Speaking to Novaya Gazeta, Yerofeyev said he had not yet left the Russian military.
Both men have been charged with involvement in "terrorist activity," and a Kyiv court on May 22 ordered them to be placed in pretrial detention until July 19.
In their interviews with Novaya Gazeta, both Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev denied that they were sent to Ukraine to engage in combat, saying they were involved in reconnaissance missions.
"I didn't carry out any special mission to destroy or capture anything [in eastern Ukraine]," Yerofeyev said. "I didn't kill anyone. There wasn't even an order to shoot. There was only an order to return fire in self-defense."
The Ukrainian military has said that the two men were wounded in a firefight in eastern Ukraine, and that they have been treated for their injuries.
While Russia denies the two men are active servicemen, Moscow has called on Ukraine to free them.
Aleksandrov teared up when his interviewer informed him that his relatives appeared on Russian television saying that he had ended his military service before leaving for Ukraine.
"Why are they turning their backs on me?" Novaya Gazeta quoted him as saying. "There was an order. I gave my oath to the motherland.... There was an order and, as a military man, I carried it out."
Novaya Gazeta noted that readers should keep in mind that claims made by Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev, and their motivations for making them, may have been impacted by their captivity.
Both men complained that they have yet to receive visits from Russian diplomats.
"I understand that they have rejected me as a military serviceman," Yerofeyev was quoted as saying. "But I am still a citizen of my country. And I'd like to see one representative [of Russia] here."
Maria Zakharova, an official with Russia's Foreign Ministry, said in a May 22 interview with the Moscow-based Ekho Mosvky radio station that Ukrainian officials had not allowed Russian diplomats to visit the men.
With reporting by Novaya Gazeta, Reuters, and AFP