National Security

Russian Soldier Caught Serving in Ukraine, Fuels Ukraine’s Allegations

A Russia-backed rebel tank moves to position, near Donetsk airport, eastern Ukraine, Friday, June 12
A Russia-backed rebel tank in eastern Ukraine / AP

An interview Wednesday with a Russian army major, arrested in Ukraine on charges of terrorism, fueled allegations that Russian soldiers are serving alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian authorities arrested Major Vladimir Starkov on July 25 at the Beryozovo checkpoint. Starkov was inside of a Russian KamAZ truck filled with Russian-made weapons. The truck was on its way from Donetsk to Yasne, a town controlled by separatists.

According to EuroNews, Starkov said that he was transferred to the Rostov oblast of Russia, a region on the Russian-Ukrainian border, in 2014. That March, he was told that he would serve in Ukraine.

Starkov said that 2,000 Russian soldiers currently serve in eastern Ukraine, the majority of whom are not volunteers.

"They gathered us in the auditorium and announced that we will serve in the same positions, but that we will continue our service in Ukraine. In Donetsk and Luhansk. We were not allowed to inform our relatives," he said.

According to RBK News, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Vasily Gritsak, said that a "well-established" mechanism exists to transfer Russian soldiers to Ukraine.

RBK News reports:

Referring to the testimony of Starkov […] The head said that Russian soldiers are promised three times the money if they accept the offer to transfer to serve in the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] and LPR [Luhansk People’s Republic]. They then allegedly take away their passport, military ID, and badge, which can identify them as an active serviceman of the Russian Armed Forces. The soldiers, in turn, sign a non-disclosure agreement about the fact that they are serving on the territory of Ukraine, and are instructed about the ban on wearing insignia that indicate membership in the Russian Armed Forces.

Deputy Defense Minister of the DPR, Eduard Basurin, denied the credibility of Starkov’s arrest, dubbing the detention of the KamAZ truck "staged." He also denied allegations that active Russian soldiers were fighting alongside separatists.

"We never said that there are no Russians here. There are those people that came here voluntarily, including former soldiers whose contract has ended. Active Russian military personnel have never been here and are not here," he said.

Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on Starkov’s detention. "We have repeatedly made comments on this subject," he said. Russian soldiers have been identified in eastern Ukraine on numerous occasions in the past.

The Security Service of Ukraine uploaded a video Wednesday of Starkov pleading Russian President Vladimir Putin to help him out of Ukraine. "I served in the Russian army for 12 years, and now they will not acknowledge me. They say that there is no one by that name. That he did not serve," he said. "I’m not a terrorist. I didn’t come here to kill anyone."

"I am asking someone to recognize that I am really in the army, and to help me get out of here, to transfer to Russia," he said.

Starkov’s plea follows the bloodiest day of fighting in eastern Ukraine since February, when the Minsk cease-fire agreement was signed.