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Ukraine captures Russian troops within its borders, just ahead of Minsk talks

The detention of the Russian paratroopers, who claim to have crossed the border accidentally, comes as the presidents of Russia and Ukraine attend a regional summit, with some speculating that the two may meet.

Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
Flags of Ukraine (l.) and Russia fly during the arrivals of leaders and delegations at an airport outside Minsk, Belarus, today. Russia and Ukraine said last Tuesday their presidents would meet together with top European Union officials in Minsk to discuss their confrontation, which has plunged relations to an all-time low.

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Ukraine on Tuesday released video of what it says are Russian soldiers captured in eastern Ukraine. The move, which bolsters Ukraine's claims of Russian interference in its territory, came just hours before a possible meeting between the two countries' presidents.

Ukraine’s security service said its forces captured 10 Russian paratroopers on Monday, near a village about 30 miles southeast of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, and about 15 miles away from the Russian border, according to the BBC.

The Facebook page for Ukraine’s anti-rebel operation – a group that includes the military, the national guard, and Interior Ministry forces – posted video of five of the men, the Associated Press reports.

Ukrainian television also aired interviews with the men, according to the BBC. A man identified as Ivan Milchakov said he is based in the Russian town Kostroma and was told he was going on a march.

I did not see where we crossed the border. They just told us we were going on a 70km march over three days,” he said. “Everything is different here, not like they show it on television. We’ve come as cannon fodder.

A source from Russia’s Defense Ministry told Russia’s RIA Novosti news service that the military troops detained by Ukraine were patrolling the border and “most likely” crossed it by accident.

These military servicemen were in fact involved in patrolling the Russian-Ukrainian border area and most likely crossed [the border] by accident at an unequipped and unmarked zone, and as far as I know they didn’t resist the armed forces of Ukraine [during their detention],” the source said.

The source pointed out that Ukrainian military have crossed into Russia several times, in larger numbers, carrying weapons and with military hardware, but the Russian side did not make fuss about it and allowed them to return to Ukraine.

Ukraine’s announcement comes as both sides are ratcheting up their rhetoric ahead of a possible meeting between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a summit both will attend in Minsk, Belarus, today. The summit is meant to discuss the conflict and regional trade issues.  

On Monday, Moscow announced that it will send a second humanitarian convoy to Ukraine, after the first one controversially entered Ukrainian territory without permission on Friday to drop off food and other aid to people in the war-torn east. More than 2,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian forces and rebels since April, according to the United Nations.

Also on Monday, antigovernment rebels in eastern Ukraine claimed they were making progress on a new offensive to crack the Ukrainian Army’s siege of Donetsk. The claim contradicts reports in recent days that the Ukrainian Army has the upper hand against the rebels, who are accused by Ukraine and its Western allies of being Russia-backed, a charge Moscow denies.

Both of Monday’s announcements are likely part of maneuvering before the potential meeting between Poroshenko and Putin, The Christian Science Monitor reports:

Experts say that both the rebel claim of a new offensive to break the Ukrainian Army's weeks-old siege of Donetsk and [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov's announcement are part of the maneuvering ahead of Tuesday's possible face-to-face meeting between Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk.

"On one hand we are seeing a concerted effort to demonstrate that the anti-Kiev rebels are not cornered, as much of the Western media has declared, and that they are very much a viable force that will have to be negotiated with at some point," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.

On the other hand, he says, Moscow is staking out its claim to be a provider of humanitarian assistance to the largely Russian-speaking populations of Luhansk and Donetsk, where hundreds of thousands of people have been trapped for weeks, with only sporadic gas and electrical power, and dwindling supplies of food, drinking water, and medicines. Last Friday a Russian convoy of 280 trucks, said to be carrying 2,000 tons of essential supplies, entered Ukraine without permission from the Kiev government and delivered the materials to Luhansk, before returning to Russia.

Few expect a diplomatic breakthrough at today's summit. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was coy on Monday about whether Putin and Poroshenko will meet privately, saying that “there’s a whole range of bilateral meetings,” and that “exactly who will meet with whom will be announced additionally,” according to RIA Novosti.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and the European trade and energy commissioners will also attend the summit in Minsk.

The summit was “set to talk about free-trade issues between the two countries in light of Ukraine’s pending affiliation with the European Union, but likely will be consumed by the war,” The Washington Post reports:

At the bargaining table, Russia wants recognition of its annexation of Crimea, rights for Russian-speaking minorities and a cease-fire; Ukraine wants Crimea returned, tighter borders and an end to the uprising.

Keith Darden, a Ukraine expert and associate professor at American University, said that Russia’s military incursions have been a demonstration of force as Moscow pushes for a federalized Ukraine — with autonomy granted to the regions. That demand is anathema to Poroshenko’s government. Moscow also insists that Ukraine make no agreement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.


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