"Former" Russian Paratroopers Lead Combat in Eastern Ukraine - Reuters

Surveying a ruined airport in the rebel stronghold of Luhansk, the ex-Russian paratrooper in trademark blue beret boasts that only "professionals" such as him can turn the tide in the conflict with Kyiv in eastern Ukraine.

Reuters 's Anton Zverev writes about it his recent article.

Yakut, the nom de guerre offered by the fighter, says he leftthe Russian armed forces to fight with pro-Russian rebels inUkraine. When his job here is done, it is to the ranks of theRussian army that he will return. "Yes sir," he says. "There can beno other way."

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Moscow has repeatedly denied it is supporting or arming therebels and says its military is not engaged in Ukraine. If thereare Russian citizens fighting with the rebels, they are privatecitizens with no links to Russia's armed forces, it says. However,rights activists in Russia and groups bringing together mothers ofsoldiers cite growing evidence that Russian paratroopers have beenwounded and killed in Ukraine.

In Luhansk, along with his comrades from across the border inRussia, Yakut says he commands a unit in charge of protecting adevastated city with no electricity or running water. Once home to500,000 people, only a few hundred celebrated a city festival onSunday.

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The guns have fallen largely silent since a truce wasimplemented on Sept. 5, after five months of fighting that claimedover 3,000 lives; but in the absence of a settlement, tensionsremain high and the Russians remain. "It's not the (local) militiahere anymore, it's mostly Russians who take part in combat," saysthe former paratrooper. "It's the professionals here now." In hislate 40s, an automatic rifle slung over his arm, Yakut is eager tostress he is no longer serving in the Russian army.

"The locals are mainly farmers, miners who have no combatexperience. And the guys who are coming in - they are experiencedpeople who have been through more than one war," says Yakut,strolling between the shattered terminal building, damaged aircraftand debris covering what used to be the tarmac of Luhansk airport.The presence of Russian boots on the ground in east Ukraine hasbecome a major international issue since the separatists opened anew front near the Sea of Azov, some 250 km (160 miles) south-westof Luhansk, in late August.

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Kyiv and the West, who accuse Russia of fanning the conflict andsupporting the separatists, say the push was only possible withRussian financing, military equipment and serving troops. Theoffensive turned the tables on the advancing Kyiv troops and helpedthe rebels win back some ground, including around Luhansk andDonetsk, the main rebel stronghold in Ukraine's Donbas coal miningregion.

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Yakut acknowledges the arrival of people like him was behind therecent advances of the separatists, who have declared a breakawayrepublic and many of whom seek union with Russia. Yakut refuses tosay when or where exactly he came from, but says he as well as mostof his comrades were with the Russian paratroopers before resigningto come to Ukraine.

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He says Russia is not providing military equipment to the rebelforces who instead seized it from the Ukrainian side. He saysmostly former Russian paratroopers were now engaged in fighting,significantly curbed since the ceasefire announcement, includinghis unit named after the Ukrainian city of Odesa and which he saidwas tasked with "restoring order". Reuters was not able to verifythat independently.

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The weekend saw heavy fighting, for instance, around Donetskairport, which remains under government control. But a Reutersreporter traveling from Donetsk to Luhansk on a rebel-controlledroad on Sunday went through 14 roadblocks, mainly manned by men inthe Russian paratroopers' trademark blue berets and undershirtswith horizontal blue and white stripes.

"There are no Russian troops here; Russian citizens take part,this is not banned by law," Yakut says. "But there were no Russiantroops here, there aren't any and there won't be until the Russianpresident makes any such decision." The presence of Russian troops"on leave" in eastern Ukraine resembles the role they have playedin covert operations earlier this year in Crimea, a peninsulaMoscow annexed from Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin only publicly admitteddeployment of Russian troops in Crimea on April 17, nearly a monthafter he signed legislation completing the process of absorbing theBlack Sea region into Russia.

Источник: https://en.censor.net.ua/n303083