Ukraine says it captured Russian troops, clouding talks

MINSK, Belarus — Ukraine released video footage Tuesday of what it said were 10 captured Russian soldiers, raising tensions as President Vladimir Putin of Russia arrived in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, for talks later in the day with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Petro Poroshenko.

In earlier peace talks between lower-ranking officials, Moscow’s position has prevented discussion of what Ukraine regards as the key to stopping the conflict: a Russian willingness to acknowledge, and halt, its support for rebels holed up in the eastern cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.

“It makes it very difficult to negotiate anything when Putin says he is not involved,” Michael A. McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow and now a professor at Stanford University, said in a telephone interview.


The release of the videos and the high-level talks came a day after Ukraine accused Russia of sending an armored column across the border, prompting Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the US ambassador to Ukraine, to express alarm on Twitter.

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“The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway. #escalation,” he wrote.

US and Ukrainian officials have said they are increasingly concerned that Russia is orchestrating a counteroffensive to reverse recent gains by Ukrainian forces.

“Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine — artillery, air def systems, dozens of tanks & military personnel — represent significant escalation,” Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, wrote in a recent Twitter post.

Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of supporting the separatists without providing any solid evidence. On Tuesday, Kiev released videos of men who, under interrogation, identified themselves as Russian soldiers captured on Ukrainian territory. The men, who gave their names and military serial numbers, said they had been sent to Ukraine by their superiors after initially being told they were going on a training exercise.


The videos were posted on the Facebook page of Ukraine’s so-called Anti-Terrorist Operation, just hours before Putin was expected to meet Poroshenko and senior officials of the European Union in Minsk. The meeting between the two presidents, the first since a brief encounter in June, will not end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, analysts said, but it should at least open the way for future talks.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who visited Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, over the weekend, dampened expectations for the Minsk meeting. It “certainly won’t result in the breakthrough” that Germany and others were hoping for, she told a German newspaper.

The videos released by Ukraine may make it more difficult for the Kremlin to stick to its approach of simply denying that it has any hand in the fighting.

“Everything was a lie. There were no drills here,” one of the captured Russians, who identified himself as Sergey A. Smirnov, told a Ukrainian interrogator.

He said he and other Russians from an airborne unit in Kostroma, in central Russia, had been sent on what was described initially as a military training exercise but later turned into a mission into Ukraine. After having their cellphones and identity documents taken away, they were sent into Ukraine on vehicles stripped of all markings, Smirnov said.


In another video released by Ukraine, a Russian identified himself as Ivan Milchakov, a member of a paratroop regiment from Kostroma.

“Everything is different here, not like they show it on television. We’ve come as cannon fodder,” he said, apparently referring to Russian television reports that the ouster of Viktor F. Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president in February had left Ukraine in the hands of fascist fanatics. He said he “did not see where we crossed the border” into Ukraine and had been told he was being sent on “a 70-kilometer march over three days,” a distance of about 43 miles.

RIA Novosti, a state-controlled Russian news agency, quoted an unnamed source from Russia’s defense ministry as saying the men had crossed into Ukraine by accident.

“The soldiers really did participate in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossed it by accident on an unmarked section, and as far as we understand showed no resistance to the armed forces of Ukraine when they were detained,” the source said.


A spokesman for the Ukrainian military, Andriy Lysenko, disputed that account and accused Russia of sending the soldiers across the border on a “special mission,” Reuters reported.

Dmitri Trenin, an expert on Russian foreign policy and the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, predicted that Russia would persist with its denials but might be willing to quietly abandon its support over time as it shifted to other ways to pressure Kiev.

“There is no solution to the Ukraine issue any time soon,” Trenin said in a telephone interview from Moscow.

Russia has already cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, complaining that it has not been paid for previous deliveries, and energy shortages will grow increasingly painful for Ukraine as winter approaches. Moscow’s long-term goal, Trenin said, is not to force Ukraine to recognize the rebels’ self-declared states but to ensure that Ukraine never joins NATO or allows Western troops on Ukrainian territory.

That goal could be accomplished, he said, by forcing Ukraine to make constitutional changes that would give eastern regions an effective veto over key decisions by the government in Kiev.

“We are still at the early stages of this monumental struggle,” he said. “The eastern rebels may lose their battle and Putin may be willing to accept this as a tactical move. But he is not ready to accept defeat of Russia’s policy in Ukraine.”

The gathering in Minsk was originally scheduled as a meeting of the Eurasian Customs Union, a Russian-led economic bloc that includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. But the crisis in Ukraine took over as the main issue when President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, the host of the meeting, arranged for Poroshenko to attend and hold talks with Putin, their first meeting since a frosty encounter during D-Day commemorations in France in early June.

Lukashenko told Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who is also in Minsk, that “we must extinguish the flames of this conflict by all means possible.” But he made clear that the Minsk session was just a start and would not produce a swift settlement. He said it would merely establish a “platform for negotiations.”

With Putin arriving late in the Belarussian capital, the start of the meeting was pushed back an hour to 3 p.m., leaving only a few hours for discussion on the crisis in Ukraine as well as talks about the customs union. Putin’s original hopes to turn the alliance into an eastern rival to the EU have faded since Ukraine refused to join.

Poroshenko has instead chosen to sign a sweeping trade and political pact with the EU, reversing a decision in November by his predecessor, Yanukovych, to turn toward Russia instead of Europe. Putin’s economic bloc, said McFaul, the former ambassador, will limp along. But without Ukraine it is a very different organization from what Putin had wanted.

Even the union’s three members, each one an authoritarian state, do not see eye to eye. When Moscow imposed restrictions on European food imports recently in retaliation for sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus declined to follow suit, apparently annoyed that they were not consulted by Moscow as partners in the same customs union.