— As the uprising in eastern Ukraine intensifies, the Russian government’s involvement is becoming harder to deny, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine said Tuesday.
Interview With US Ambassador to Ukraine
Geoffrey Pyatt’s remarks, in an exclusive interview with VOA, came as the morgue in the eastern city of Donetsk struggled to cope with dozens of bodies of armed fighters.
Most were killed in the intense battling with Ukrainian forces Monday at the Donetsk International Airport.
The prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, a separatist group that controls this eastern region of Ukraine, said about 50 pro-Russian militiamen had been killed in clashes with Ukrainian forces for control of the crucial airport.
Pyatt says the separatists are clearly well-trained and well-armed, and they could not be escalating their fight without at least the "connivance" of the Russian government.
"There's extensive evidence these groups are coming from across the Russian border,” he said. “Personally, I'm skeptical this could be happening without some kind of official, at least connivance."
Monday’s fighting was the most intense seen in weeks in the region, with militants armed with sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry and small arms being strafed by helicopter gunships and MiG fighter jets.
The Kremlin has been coy about its involvement in the lightning seizure and annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March, as well as the insurgency in the eastern city of Donetsk and surrounding regions.
Heavily-armed pro-Russian militants have seized arsenals, police stations and other government buildings in more than a dozen towns in eastern Ukraine.
Billionaire tycoon Petro Poroshenko, who claimed victory in Sunday’s presidential election, has vowed to crush the insurgency.
Pyatt praised the election, held in most of Ukraine despite the violence in the east. He also agreed with official monitors that the result appeared legitimate, even though many voters in two eastern regions were kept from voting by armed separatists.
"On balance, we see this as perhaps the freest election in Ukraine's history, in terms of the breadth of candidates, the quality of the administrative arrangements, the documented freedom of the press,” Pyatt said. “This was a positive election for Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people."
Poroshenko, he said, has an "unambiguous mandate," and the United States has endorsed his priorities – bringing peace to the east, reaching out to its people, fighting entrenched corruption and moving Ukraine closer to the West.
"We see this as a way to build prosperity for Ukrainian citizens, as a way to build stability for Ukrainian institutions, and as a way to build a more just and democratic society in this country,” he said.
Pyatt also said the United States and its partners have already provided fresh economic and military aid, and the process will continue.
“One of the categories of goods which we are going to deliver is additional radios to help address some of these issues in terms of command and control, communications, the ability of the Ukrainian military to adapt to a changed security environment,” he said. “But this is going to be a long term task."
The U.S. ambassador said he has no regrets about U.S. support for the pro-European movement that led to the ouster of the former president, and sparked Russia's seizure of Crimea and its meddling in eastern Ukraine.
He rejected Russian charges that the United States engineered the movement, calling the eventful last six months in Ukraine "a revolution of dignity."