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In Eastern Ukraine, The Hunt For A Smoking Gun -- And A Real Russian Holding It

Pro-Russian gunmen stand guard outside the mayor's office in Slovyansk, Ukraine, on April 14. Can Kyiv prove some are Russian servicemen?
Pro-Russian gunmen stand guard outside the mayor's office in Slovyansk, Ukraine, on April 14. Can Kyiv prove some are Russian servicemen?
As separatists continue to hold government buildings throughout the Ukrainian east, a desperate search is on to prove that Russian forces are behind the coordinated actions, much as they were in Crimea.

The proof would cement suspicions that Russia, which has maintained a military presence on Ukraine's eastern border for months, is preparing to further destabilize its already fragile neighbor, if not annex certain portions of it outright.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continues to insist that Russia has none of its forces inside Ukraine.

But Western officials say they are already convinced of Russian involvement. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said the weekend instability that swept through cities like Slovyansk, Mariupol, and Kramatorsk "was choreographed in and by Russia."

Ukrainian officials, too, have offered evidence of Russian involvement. In an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya said the armed men seizing government buildings were armed with automatic rifles used by the Russian Army, and not the types of rifles stolen from Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) forces, as many pro-Russian protesters have claimed. (Although he does not offer specific details, Deshchytsya appears to be referring to documented use of Kalashnikov AK-100 rifles, which are not part of the Ukrainian arsenal.)

But it may be Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, who holds the true smoking gun. Parubiy, a former lawmaker and Euromaidan protest leader, announced on April 15 that SBU agents had detained officers from the Russian Defense Ministry's main intelligence wing, the GRU, for involvement in the eastern actions.

The "Kyiv Post" later identified the main detainee as Igor Strelkov, a GRU commanding officer and the leader of the paramilitary group that has taken control in the eastern city of Slovyansk. The SBU said Strelkov arrived in Crimea at the beginning of March and had been identified in a recorded telephone conversation with a Moscow official on April 14:

In addition to working with Russian troops and special forces, Strelkov had reportedly recruited Ukrainian citizens to help conduct subversive activities. Parubiy said Ukrainians were among those detained.

Nelya Shtepa, the mayor of Slovyansk, said in a television interview on April 15 that the "little green men" -- as pro-Russian fighters without identifying insignia have come to be called -- had not attempted to hide that they were from Crimea and Russia when storming city buildings on April 14.

The Foreign Ministry will release evidence on April 17 that it says will also prove the involvement of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) in the separatist plots. The SBU says it has determined as well that separatist groups were receiving funding from an unidentified Russian bank.

Elsewhere, the direct presence of Russian forces has been more difficult to prove. Several videos from the city of Horlivka show a man dressed in military camouflage announcing a new occupation-led government and identifying himself as a lieutenant colonel with the Russian armed forces. Several observers, however, have pointed out inconsistencies in the claim, such as the fact that the man's uniform is unmarked, he wears a casual black baseball cap rather than a regulation watch cap, and as documentation presents a Russian passport rather than military identification.

Elsewhere, there are disturbing suggestions of Ukrainian involvement in the unrest. Writing on Facebook, Kyiv-based political analyst Ivan Lozowy cites an informed source as reporting that pro-Kyiv self-defense forces in another besieged city, Luhansk, have come under the command of the region's deputy governor, Vasyl Khoma, who is suspected of earlier colluding with "titushky" and other hired fighters to stage attacks on Euromaidan protesters.

Even more worryingly, the deal was reportedly struck by Kharkiv's pro-Moscow mayor, Hennadiy Kernes, and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Avakov has increasingly come under fire in recent weeks, with protesters in Kyiv on April 14 calling on him to resign and for the central government to take action to quell the separatist uprisings in the east.

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