SLAVIANSK, Ukraine — Russian mercenaries with combat experience in Syria and Libya have sneaked into two rebel territories in eastern Ukraine, helping to create the basis for war, according to two European security officials. High level Europe.
The mercenaries, about 300 so far, belong to Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group and arrived in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk wearing civilian clothes, according to European officials. Europe. Western intelligence agencies tracked them leaving Libya and Syria and into Russian-controlled Crimea, from where they sought out rebel territories, one of the officials said.
Their number is tiny compared with the estimated 190,000 troops that Russian President Vladimir Putin has deployed around the border with Ukraine as he threatens to carry out what many fear could be the bloodiest conflict in Europe. Europe since World War II.
But the presence of Wagner fighters is another ominous sign of the war’s approach, and raises the possibility that Mr. Putin may be following a playbook used in 2014, when the Kremlin deployed Russian mercenaries, mainly Russian ex-soldiers, to strengthen the force. of insurgents in eastern Ukraine.
The exact purpose of mercenaries is a subject of debate. One of the officials said that mercenaries were sent to rebel territories to engage in sabotage operations and raise false flags to make Ukrainian forces appear to be attacking. civilian goals.
But the second senior official, in charge of the Ukrainian military, said the mercenaries started arriving two months ago and were mainly brought in to fill the ranks of the separatists, to make it seem as local warriors are leading the attack. The Ukrainian official, interviewed on Wednesday, said that it was Russian intelligence agencies that were responsible for the sabotage.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive intelligence findings freely.
Ukraine is at a time of growing anxiety. For months, even as Russian troops have massed on their border, Ukrainians have been largely optimistic and their government has largely dismissed the increasingly alarming accusations from the West that an invasion is imminent. of Russia is possible.
But the mood seemed to have changed dramatically almost overnight.
The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, mobilized the army in reserve and declared a state of emergency. Pillars of military vehicles including tanks, armored personnel carriers and light artillery trucks have appeared on Ukraine’s roads.
In the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, less than a few dozen miles from Russian forces crossing the border, soldiers in armor and carrying automatic weapons set up checkpoints on Wednesday and were checking umbrellas. bowl, seems to be random.
This week, Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, wrote a blunt open letter to the Ukrainian military, warning them to prepare for the worst.
“Ahead is a difficult test,” he wrote. “There will be losses. You will have to go through the pain and overcome the fear and despair.”
Last month, the White House warned that the Russian military was sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine to organize events. US officials said can be used to make up a pretext for war. That warning appears to have come true, at least according to Ukrainian officials, who point to a series of curious recent incidents, including the detonation of a bomb in a security official’s car. uprising, and a bizarre report by Russian government media that five Ukrainian soldiers were killed trying to carry out a sneak attack across the Russian border. Ukrainian officials say each of these incidents is fabricated. It is unclear if any mercenaries are involved in these episodes.
The use of mercenaries is considered a key feature of the Kremlin’s military strategy around the world. But this strategy was born and honed in Ukraine, starting in 2014, when Moscow sought to conceal its involvement in supporting what the public called a democratic, anti-democratic uprising. to the Ukrainian government.
Understanding how the Ukraine crisis developed
The involvement of mercenaries, as well as regular Russian soldiers, was never easy to hide. The dead and wounded fighters showed up at hospitals in the eastern Donbas with Russian passports. The bodies of young men, covered with shrapnel, suddenly appeared in their home village deep in Russia with no explanation as to how they died.
Moscow has consistently denied that Russian professional soldiers have been involved in any fighting in Ukraine, although the United States and Ukraine say tens of thousands of Russian troops have been deployed over the years to fight fighting in the breakaway region, even before the recent military buildup. .
But Russia has acknowledged the involvement of what it calls “volunteers”, saying it chooses to spend its holidays supporting fellow Slavs fighting against what Moscow calls the fascist regime in Russia. Ukraine.
Wagner is the most famous of a series of Russian mercenary groups that over the years have become more formal, operating more like Western military contractors.
Wagner fighters have accumulated military experience in wars in the Middle East and served as security advisers to various governments, including the Central African Republic, Sudan and most recently Mali. Although closely tied to the Russian military, they operate at long distances, which allows the Kremlin to responsibly deny when fighter jets engage in dubious behavior.
In 2017, the Trump administration sanctioned Dmitri Utkin, commander of the Wagner group, for its role in recruiting soldiers to join separatist forces in Ukraine. In 2021, one UN report found that mercenaries from Wagner based in the Central African Republic killed civilians, looted homes and shot dead worshipers at a mosque.
A few years earlier, Wagner fighters in Syria, along with pro-government forces, conducted a massive artillery bombardment against American commandos in a desert red zone, ostensibly to capture take the oil and gas fields that the Americans are protecting. In response, the Americans launched air strikes that killed 200 to 300 people.
In both cases, the Russian government denied involvement.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/world/europe/russian-ukraine-mercenaries.html Russian mercenaries have completely penetrated the breakaway regions of Ukraine