MOSCOW, Russia — Hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sat down for their first serious peace talks in Minsk on Tuesday, angry families of Russian paratroopers gathered outside a military base at Kastroma, deep in the Russian heartland. They demanded to know who had deployed their sons and husbands to Ukraine, where 10 members of of the 331st Airborne Regiment of the 98th Division were captured on Monday afternoon, and others may have been wounded and killed.
Officially, the Kremlin has denied the Russian army gives active support to rebels fighting in the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, and the division’s commanders repeatedly promised the relatives some explanation, but, really, there was not much they could say. Their boys had already appeared on videos released by Kiev.
The Kremlin’s strategy ever since it staged the secession and annexation of Crimea this year has been to deny any active role, and when discovered, continue to issue blanket denials until its objectives were accomplished. Thus it continues to obfuscate about the role it allegedly played supplying rebels with the sophisticated antiaircraft missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing almost 300 innocent civilians. Thus it dismissed charges by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Friday that Moscow had state “a major escalation” since mid-August, including the use of Russian forces, Russian artillery, and transfers of advanced weapons including armored personnel carriers and tanks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by complaining of regular “disinformation about our ‘incursions.’”
But the issue of the captured paratroopers is harder to deny and much more politically sensitive inside Russia. While the essentially bloodless annexation of Crimea was hugely popular and there is widespread sympathy for the Russian-speaking rebels in the regions of eastern Ukraine known collectively as Donbass, the Russian public does not want to see Russian boots on the ground there. The latest polls, published by Public Opinion Foundation this month, showed that only 5 percent of the Russian population expects the Russian army to be deployed across the border.
The soldiers from the 331st Airborne were captured by Ukrainian security forces after a firefight on Monday afternoon near the village of Dzerkalne in the Donetsk region, according to officials in Kiev, who released videos of four detainees being questioned at a Ukrainian military camp.
All four paratroopers—Lance Corporal Sergey Smirnov, L Cpl. Ivan Milchukov, L Cpl. Ivan Romantsev and Sgt. Aleksei Generalov—had documents on them proving that they were on active duty in the Russian army. They said that on August 23 they had arrived by train in the Rostov region of Russia near the Ukraine frontier. At 3 a.m. on Sunday, the 24th, their commanders rousted them and ordered them to march in a column with several BMD armored fighting vehicles. Only the officers were aware they’d be crossing into Ukrainian territory.
The four detained paratroopers in the video claimed they had no clue that they were invaders. But the day before they crossed the border they were ordered to paint over the plates on their military vehicles in preparation for “joint Russian-Ukrainian military exercises.”
On the video paratrooper Milchukov said that Russia used the bodies of Russian servicemen as “cannon fodder” and Sgt. Generalov appealed to the Kremlin: “Don’t send guys here, please. So many people die in vain.”
At a press briefing at the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center in Kiev, Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for anti-terror operation, said heated combat with the Russians lasted for 2.5 hours, and the “sabotage group,” as he called it, was backed up by two Russian Armed Forces Mi-24 helicopters firing missiles. Lysenko said four Ukrainian border guards were killed.
Lysenko cited the statement by NATO and one by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt to the effect that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict had entered a new and dangerous phase to bolster his claims that Russia had “invaded.”
But Russian Member of Parliament Robert Schlegel told The Daily Beast that “both Americans and the European Union, and especially Bildt, presented desired facts as real facts, since they have to find some reasons to excuse themselves for causing this conflict and for imposing economic sanctions against Russia." Schlegel insisted that judging by the fact President Putin agreed to meet with Ukrainian President Poroshenko, “the situation looked much more positive than many would want. Despite the interest the E.U. and America have in the conflict, things will go back to normal soon," he said.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin continued to issue formal denials of any involvement in the war, but non-officially the defense ministry confirmed that the paratroopers detained in Donetsk region came from Russia. The news agencies Ria Novosti and Itar-Tass quoted an unnamed defense ministry official saying they crossed the border “by accident.”
As a result of this secrecy, Russian servicemen are dying in Ukraine anonymously, relatives in Kastroma said. Their families do not receive any compensation or any moral support from the state. The families grew especially upset after they saw photographs of a secret funeral in Pskov of Russian paratroopers killed on the Ukrainian battlefield. Neither the last names of the fallen, nor the place and date of their deaths, were pronounced at the funeral.
Sgt. Generalov, speaking on the video made after his arrest, confessed that he did not have any intention to return to Russia, where he said he was “forced to believe” that version of events preached by his commander in chief. If Russia had not intervened, the Ukrainians themselves could have “figured everything out,” he said. Generalov’s lines may well have been scripted by his captors, but on one point many Russians would appear to agree: “This is not our war,” he said.