Observers spot Russian army insignia in eastern Ukraine as tension rises

International observers in eastern Ukraine have found what appears to be further evidence of Russian support for separatist fighters in the area, reporting that they spotted soldiers in Russian military garb in a car with Russian licence plates near a fenced-off camp area.

Russia continues to deny that it has sent troops to fight in eastern Ukraine, despite the Ukrainian government, Nato and media outlets reporting frequent evidence for the passage of Russian troops and equipment into Ukriane's war-stricken Donetsk and Luhansk regions. However a report from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which monitors the ceasefire signed between the two sides last February has published its clearest evidence for Russian presence in Ukraine yet, as tension continues to rise in the region.

The OSCE, which has a special monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine, has published a detailed account of meeting a group of armed persons in Russian military uniform near the village of Petrivske in separatist-held territory in the Luhansk region.

The observers had been directed there as locals had told them a local holiday camp was occupied by an unidentified armed group. The observers then spoke to "two women, both wearing military uniforms, with caps with Russian Federation Armed Forces insignia" also in the village. The women claimed to be from the Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk region, despite their attire.

The conversation was soon interrupted by "a vehicle with Russian Federation number plates" according to the report, as "two armed men, similarly dressed, exited the car and ordered the women to stop the conversation".

When inspecting the occupied holiday camp from the outside, the observers spotted at least "one infantry vehicle", however the camp itself was reportedly surrounded by a tall fence and they were not allowed inside.

The OSCE was unable to identify the profession of the four individuals, but this remains the most concrete evidence that the mission in Ukraine, which also includes Russian observers, has published of undisguised Russian military personnel in Ukraine. Russia has consistently denied sending soldiers to eastern Ukraine, despite several high-profile captures of Russian servicemen on Ukrainian territory and rebel leader Alexander Zaharchenko's claim that as many as 4,000 Russian soldiers were fighting alongside him last summer. He added that they are there on a voluntary basis out of solidarity.

Recent buildups of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border and accounts from journalists of Russian military kit entering Ukraine have prompted fears of a new increase in violence. Although the ceasefire has held with relative success since February, frequent skirmishes have been reported in eastern Ukraine and heavy artillery fire was reported from both sides near the town of Marinka, west of Donetsk yesterday.

The OSCE report from Marinka, published today, contradicts pro-Russian claims that they did not move any heavy weapons toward the frontline - a violation of the terms of the ceasefire agreed between Ukraine, Russia and the fighters in the east. The report cites the "movement of a large amount of heavy weapons in the Donetsk People's Republic-controlled areas", referring to the name fighters call their territory.

The report also contradicts separatist claims that Marinka is under their control and therefore was shelled by the Ukrainian defence forces, as the OSCE claims heavy separatist weapons were moved toward the "government-controlled" town of Marinka.

Ukraine's defence forces admitted to recalling artillery weapons from rear positions toward the contact line yesterday but claimed they did so in response to a 1,000-strong pro-Russian advance on the town.

Evidence for Russian military presence in Ukraine has mounted, as global thinktank the Atlantic Council recently presented a body of evidence showing the movement of Russian military kit into Ukraine and the images of armored vehicles in rebel possession which they could not have obtained from anyone but the Russian army, as even Ukraine does not use them.

Among those images were also satellite pictures of impromptu camps which had appeared on the Russian side of the Ukrainian border as the conflict began. Images of the landscape several months prior show they had been recently built.

Slain Kremlin-critic Boris Nemtsov compiled a similar document before his suspicious death in central Moscow in February, in which he estimated that Russia has used €1bn from its state budget to support mercenaries and soldiers fighting in Ukraine, while also sending as many as 10,000 Russian soldiers to fight Ukraine's defence forces.

A report by UK thinktank Chatham House, also published today, has warned that prolonged Russian aggression in Ukraine is a threat to Western countries as well, as the EU and Nato "could collapse" if they do not take a more hard line approach with Russia.

The report urged Western governments to invest more in defence in order to provide "conventional deterrent capability" and "avoid presenting Russia with inviting targets". The report, which was partly compiled by two former UK ambassadors to Russia, Sir Roderic Lyne and Sir Andrew Wood, said that the West must also address disinformation threats posed by Russia and develop "defensive strategic communications and media support" to prevent Russian propaganda from spreading.

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