Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have employed at least 21 weapons and vehicles that were not previously found in the country, according to an arms research company, bolstering claims that Russia has equipped the rebels.
The weapons—all but one of which came from Russia—include man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs), rocket launchers, anti-tank munitions, and small arms, according to a report by Armament Research Services (ARES). MANPADs of Polish origin were also observed in Ukraine.
Additionally, ARES said Russian armored personnel carriers, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, and battle tanks were identified in the country.
President Barack Obama reiterated the assertions of other high-ranking U.S. officials last month when he said that the separatists have received "Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training, and Russian troops." A recent rebel offensive forced the beleaguered Ukrainian military to withdraw from the Donetsk airport, which the separatists followed with attacks on Mariupol and Debaltseve in the east. More than 5,000 people have died since fighting began last April.
Obama administration officials are now reportedly considering supplying Ukrainian forces with lethal arms such as antitank missiles, a move the president has so far resisted. Some U.S. officials are still concerned that arming the Ukrainians would provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin to further ramp up his support for the separatists.
Putin denies that the Kremlin is backing the separatists.
ARES noted in its report, published late last year and highlighted Monday by the New York Times, that the pro-Russian rebels acquired a substantial number of domestic arms from capturing Ukrainian military bases and government stockpiles. But the group said it is "very likely" that "one or more external parties" aided the separatists.
"Limited illicit importation has certainly taken place," the report said. "For example, there is no legitimate civilian means of ingress for many of the arms produced outside of Ukraine which have been documented in this report, including the [Russian sniper rifle] and [Russian machine gun] recently observed, or indeed the several anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems identified as foreign."
The separatists or their Russian backers are widely believed to have shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 last July with a Russian-made surface-to-air missile system—an attack that killed all 298 passengers. ARES noted 15 other incidents last year where the separatists heavily damaged Ukrainian government aircraft with similar systems.
ARES studied more than 100 weapons systems and 70 different models of armored fighting vehicles for the report, which was compiled from media reports, social media sites, and local sources on the ground. N.R. Jenzen-Jones, director of ARES, co-authored the report with Jonathan Ferguson, curator of firearms at the Royal Armories Museum in Leeds, United Kingdom.
Estimates on the number of Russian troops in Ukraine vary widely. NATO officials suspect that there are about 1,000 Russian military and intelligence personnel aiding the separatists, while the Ukrainian military says as many as 10,000 are in the country.