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Shadowy Specter Of Russia Hangs Over Rumored 'Death Squads' In Ukraine

The kidnapping and apparent torture of Euromaidan activists like Dmytro Bulatov (pictured) has sparked fears that Russians are covertly helping Ukrainian state security efforts to crack down on antigovernment protesters.
The kidnapping and apparent torture of Euromaidan activists like Dmytro Bulatov (pictured) has sparked fears that Russians are covertly helping Ukrainian state security efforts to crack down on antigovernment protesters.
After being kidnapped on January 22, Dmytro Bulatov says he was kept blindfolded for eight days as his abductors beat him, sliced off part of his ear, drove nails through his hands, and finally left him for dead in a forest.

Through the ordeal, he never once saw his captors. But he could hear them. And when he was finally returned to safety, Bulatov -- one of the leaders of Automaidan, the automotive flank of Ukraine's Euromaidan protests -- said on January 31 that his captors had spoken "with a Russian accent."

The comment bolstered already strong suspicions among Ukrainian protesters that Russians are illicitly contributing to state security efforts as the government of Viktor Yanukovych continues its often violent crackdown on the two-month Euromaidan protests.

Ukrainian protesters claim to have witnessed Berkut riot police exchanging rubles for hryvnyas and speaking in "clean Russian" -- meaning without a distinctive Ukrainian accent. And accounts are growing of protesters and journalists being abducted, beaten, and sometimes killed by unidentified Russian-speaking attackers, in a trend opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk likened to Latin American-style "death squads."

Reports of Russian gangs enlisting in the violent intimidation of Euromaidan may be wholly credible to many protesters deeply resentful of Moscow's efforts to keep Ukraine under its wing -- particularly the $15 billion bailout deal that appeared to bury Ukraine's European Union ambitions once and for all.

But Russian journalist and security expert Andrei Soldatov says it may be too early to pin the blame on Russia for the wave of kidnappings and beatings, particularly in a country like Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population.

"There is a huge number of people [in Ukraine] who can speak with a Russian accent, from Russian residents to Belarusian residents to Ukrainian residents," Soldatov says. " I understand these concerns and I know there have long been fears that units or individuals from Russia may be in Ukraine. But I think there are not enough facts to assert anything at this stage."

Mounting Anecdotal Evidence

The possibility of Russian involvement, however, may be harder to ignore as anecdotal evidence grows.

Most recently, two journalists from Russia's Tatarstan Republic said they were savagely beaten on January 31 by men speaking "pure" Russian after being forced into a black car with no license plates outside the Kyiv flat where they were staying.

One of the correspondents, Nikita Perfilyev, said he lost several teeth in the beating; his cameraman, Anton Zakharov, was left with deep bruises along the right side of his face.

The cases are also reminiscent of activists Ihor Lutsenko and Yuriy Verbytskyy, who were abducted on January 22 and severely beaten. Verbitskyy, left unconscious in the woods, died of exposure. Lutsenko, who survived the attack, said his assailants spoke Ukrainian with a "distinctive" accent, and appeared surprisingly uninformed about events in Ukraine.

Some observers have suggested that Russian intelligence groups are thriving in Ukraine, which has failed to push back against Moscow's security structures. "The authorities knowingly chose not to strengthen the Ukrainian Security Service, and above all, its counterespionage," correspondent Yuriy Raykhel wrote in the Ukrainian newspaper "Day," adding that the oversight had made Ukraine "a paradise for foreign intelligence services."

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Ukrainian political strategist Taras Berezovets says a number of Russian security forces have been dispatched to Ukraine since the start of the Euromaidan protests in late November.

"There are many representatives of Russia's intelligence community in Kyiv -- officers from the Russian Defense Ministry's main intelligence service and from the Federal Security Service," Berezovets says. "Their main function is to act as agents who also liaise with Ukraine's security and military [silovie] structures. I don't exclude that they could be providing advice on how to crush peaceful protests, since Russia has perfected this."

Shades Of Gongadze

For some, the rumored Russian death squads are an eerie echo of teams reportedly organized by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to eliminate "terrorists" -- and often rights workers and journalists -- during the Chechen wars.

The attacks on Bulatov, Verbytskyy, and others are also uncomfortably similar in style to the 2000 kidnapping and murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was shot, beheaded, and dumped in a forest outside Kyiv after a series of reports revealing high-level corruption.

Many believe then-President Leonid Kuchma was responsible for ordering Gongadze's murder, after voice recordings were released that appeared to document Kuchma calling for the hit. Fourteen years later, Ukrainian opposition leader Oleksandr Turchynov has accused Yanukovych's government of continuing the trend, hiring "criminal structures" to work in tandem with legitimate law enforcement bodies like the Berkut riot police.

WATCH: Locals Recount Finding Abducted Ukrainian Activist
Locals Recount Finding 'Abducted' Ukrainian Activist
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Not everyone is convinced, however, that the criminal structures are necessarily Russian. Berezovets suggests Ukrainian forces may even be taking advantage of the rabid antipathy toward Moscow by pretending to be Russian and playing into a scenario that many Euromaidan protesters are ready to believe.

"It's more likely that the abductors were not Russians but Ukrainians and that Ukrainian security or military officers, possibly Berkut, are responsible," he says. "They may be trying to deliberately throw people off the track [by speaking Russian]."

Regardless, many Ukrainians will continue to hold Russia responsible if the attacks continue.

A new protest poster, aimed at Ukrainian athletes departing for the Sochi Winter Olympics this week, calls on competitors to take a stand against Russian-led violence, warning, "You are traveling to a country that orders and pays for the murder of peaceful Ukrainian protesters."

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