Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv suffered a serious setback Wednesday in their efforts to restore order in the troubled east of the country when pro-Russian separatists seized several Ukrainian army armored vehicles, hoisting Russia flags on them.
The interception in the city of Slovyansk of a column of six armored personnel carriers, which comes on the eve of talks in Geneva between diplomats from Russia, Ukraine and the West, is adding to frustrations here in Kyiv about the failure of the country’s new leaders to re-assert control in the east.
Kyiv authorities deny claims by locals that Ukrainian paratroopers manning the half-a-dozen troop carriers switched sides after agitators offered them food. Separatists say the soldiers’ morale was low and that they hadn’t been given supplies for several days.
Ukrainian defense officials say the column was captured with the help of Russian agents. Kyiv insists that hundreds of Russian troops have crossed the border and are coaching and instructing separatists on tactics.
Counter-intelligence chief Vitaly Nayda told a news conference Wednesday that the determination was made after intercepting conversations of the Russian military from Slovyansk.
He said 40 agents ‘recruited by Russian security services’ had been arrested. Nayada added that those arrested had admitted to being recruited and were now assisting with the investigation.
Moscow dismissed the allegation.
The country’s new leaders, who replaced President Viktor Yanukovych ousted in February after months of street protests against his pro-Russian rule, are trying to dampen ethnic Russian agitation in east Ukraine by offering reforms and greater autonomy for the region.
They are also trying to measure their response to the seizing in the last few days by pro-Russian militants of government and security buildings in at least 10 towns in eastern Ukraine.
They fear that too strong an action will offer the Kremlin a pretext to order in an estimated 40,000-strong Russian army massed on the border in a posture that U.S. and NATO officials say is highly aggressive.
Kyiv’s politicians claim Moscow has been infiltrating Russian provocateurs for weeks to incite much of the agitation in east Ukraine – an allegation also leveled by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The Kremlin denies this and has warned it is ready to send forces massed on the border to protect ethnic Russians – the initial reason given for seizing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
Pro-Russian activists deny the claims, often flashing Ukrainian passports to reporters.