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Russia's Shadowy Military Presence Threatens East Ukraine

As the rhetorical shots between Moscow and the West continue, there are an estimated 40,000 Russian troops stationed just across the border from Ukraine poised to invade that country if Russian President Vladimir Putin gives the order.

But there are indications that some Russian troops already are on the Ukrainian side of the border.

John Schindler, a specialist on intelligence at the U.S. Naval War College, said these troops are engaged in what he calls “a special war.”

“This is a strategy for using power in somewhat of a covert or clandestine manner -- espionage, subversion, even terrorism -- in a way that is not fully transparent, in a way that using overt military is,” he said. “It is very much what the Russians are doing in eastern Ukraine right now.

"They did it in Crimea before," he said. "They did a great deal of this in Georgia in 2008 leading up to their major military intervention.”

Before Putin annexed Crimea last month, pro-Russian militia took over government buildings on the peninsula and asked for Moscow’s support. Russian military authorities denied any links to the masked gunmen.

Russian accounts in doubt

Keir Giles, head of the Conflict Studies Research Center in Oxford, England, an organization that tracks the Russian military, said there is no doubt Russian soldiers were on the peninsula at that time, despite attempts to make them anonymous.

“They took off all of the unit patches and so on from their uniforms," he said. "But they were not all particularly careful about that, so some still had - for example - name tags attached to their body armor.”

“Tracing those through Russian social media, you can work out exactly which unit they are from and find out that actually they departed for Crimea at the end of February,” said Giles.

Now that Crimea is in Russian hands, the focus has shifted to predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

Russian officials are once again denying that Russian troops are in Ukraine.

Analyst Giles said there is no doubt, however, about their presence.

“The Russian forces in Ukraine are making a much greater effort to be less obvious than they were in Crimea," he said. "So they are trying quite hard to look disorganized and less well-trained - and also intermingling much more effectively with the local units that are supporting them, as opposed to Crimea, when there were distinct groups of Russian servicemen and the local mobs that were on their side.”

Russian force presence

Analyst Schindler said Russian forces have been in Ukraine for some time.

“For weeks there have been GRU - that is Russian military intelligence, special operators roaming around eastern Ukraine and also southern Ukraine. Some of them have been caught in the Odessa region as well,” said Schindler. “These are relatively small groups -- 10, 20, 30 individuals in each group -- running around, raising local supporters, distributing guns, money, etc.

"This is exactly what the GRU does," he said. "They are very good at it, and they have been laying the groundwork for this for some time.”

Schindler and Giles said there is evidence that special forces that were in Crimea are now in eastern Ukraine.

Schindler said Russian covert operations have increased under Putin, who is a former Soviet KGB agent.

“Putin has created a state where the intelligence services -- which are his, of course, original base of power -- have enormous influence on decision-making and strategy-making in a way no Western state has,” he said.

And if you don’t understand that, Schindler said, you don’t understand how Moscow and the Kremlin operate today.
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    Andre de Nesnera

    Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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