LONDON - Experts say the rebels in eastern Ukraine are using sophisticated Russian weapons that require specialized skills to operate and could only have come directly from Russia. The analysis comes as both sides withdraw heavy weapons as part of the shaky ceasefire deal, and NATO accuses Russia of continuing to supply the rebels.
Inspectors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe check Ukrainian government rocket launchers being withdrawn from the front lines.
Eighty kilometers to the south, another team monitors the withdrawal of rebel tanks.
But these are not necessarily the rebels’ best weapons. The most modern items, apparently sent from Russia, are few in number, but potentially significant, says Nic Jenzen-Jones, director of the consulting firm Armament Research Services, who spoke via Skype.
“Some of the larger systems, even in the small numbers documented since we released the report, could prove if not decisive then certainly influential," said Jenzen-Jones.
His firm’s report says experts have misidentified weapons on both sides.. But it confirms the rebels have weapons they could not have gotten from within Ukraine, as they claim. These range from modern rifles to new Russian battle tanks, including this one the Ukrainian government says its troops destroyed.
On Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russian supplies continue to flow.
“We have seen and we still see Russian presence and strong support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. We see the delivery of equipment, forces, training," said Stoltenberg.
Stoltenberg also said he regretted Russia’s decision to withdraw from consultations based on the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe -- a post-Cold War agreement.
That accord has not stopped Russia from supplying sophisticated weapons to the rebels, says Joseph Dempsey of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“We’ve see types of equipment, particularly armored vehicles, including main battle tanks that have never been exported to Ukraine. So there’s no other logical reason to believe that they would be in the country other than an external supply, namely Russia. These are quite advanced systems, and require a good degree of experience and expertise in order to use them effectively," said Dempsey.
He says that means either Russian troops or Russian training.
Concerns about Russian weapons in eastern Ukraine, and the potential for further Western military supplies to the Ukrainian government, have eased somewhat because of the ceasefire. But if hostilities resume, the experts say the Ukrainians may need radar systems, anti-tank weapons and other modern systems. But they also note Russia could counter any Western aid, potentially leading to an even deadlier conflict.