A top Russian law enforcement official has accused Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of fighting alongside Chechen rebels and torturing and killing Russian soldiers during Moscow's bloody war with separatists in the 1990s.
Aleksandr Bastrykin, the powerful head of Russia's Investigative Committee, made the assertions in an interview published on September 8 on the website of the Russian government's official daily newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
Yatsenyuk worked as a lawyer, a banker, and an economist before his appointment last year as prime minister following the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally, amid mass protests.
His official biography gives no indication of military service.
Bastrykin claimed in the interview that Yatsenyuk "participated in at least two armed conflicts" in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, in late 1994 and early 1995, "as well as in torture and executions of Russian army servicemen" in January 1995.
He also claimed that the late Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who declared Chechen independence from Russia in 1991 and led separatists in the first Chechen war until his death in a Russian missile strike in 1996, awarded Yatsenyuk and other alleged Ukrainian volunteers medals for "killing Russian servicemen."
Yatsenyuk’s spokeswoman, Olha Lappo, responded to the allegation on social media by “encourag[ing] the Russian regime to undergo psychiatric evaluation.”
During the time period indicated in Bastrykin’s allegations, Yatsenyuk was studying in the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi, near the Romanian border, according to the Ukrainian premier’s official biography.
Following Yanukovych's flight from Ukraine in February 2014, Russia has repeatedly portrayed the pro-Western leadership that subsequently came to power as fascist sympathizers and dangerous extremists.
Russia's federal forces launched the first of two brutal wars against separatists in Chechnya in December 1994.
The Kremlin has since reigned in the mainly Muslim republic in the North Caucasus by giving Chechnya's strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, the freedom to run the southern region as he see fit in exchange for fealty to Moscow.
Bastrykin claimed in the interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta that Yatsenyuk returned to Ukraine from Chechnya via Georgia in "early 1995" together with a "group of journalists."
Ukraine has fought a bloody war with pro-Moscow separatists in the east of the country that has killed more than 7,900 people since fighting broke out in April 2014.
The conflict erupted a month after Russia seized and annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, a moved deemed illegitimate by a large majority of UN members.
The United States and the EU have punished Russian officials and companies with several rounds of visa and economic sanctions in response to the Crimean standoff and the war in eastern Ukraine, plunging Moscow's ties with the West to lows unseen since the Cold War.