The Ukrainian government reportedly said one of the rebel leaders, Igor Strelkov, for instance, is a registered citizen of Moscow and a former officer in the FSB, the successor of the notorious KGB. Georgetown University professor Christopher Swift said Strelkov has had a “long standing relationship with the Russian intelligence services.” The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. said today it did not “have any information about Mr. Strelkov.”
A New York Times report in May painted a more complex picture of some troops on the ground for one rebel company in Donetsk, noting that while most of the fighters in that group were Ukrainian, many had close ties to Russia and relatives there. The company commander, the Times said, was a Ukrainian who had served in the Russian military – “a background that could make him both authentically local and a capable Russian proxy.”
U.S. officials have also accused Russia of providing the separatist movement with heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft systems. While the U.S. officials didn’t comment directly on the origins of the sophisticated SA-11 system, the Ukrainian security services released a video today that it claims shows an SA-11 system being trucked back towards the Russian border, missing two of its four missiles.
Today U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the idea that the missile system came from Russia is stating “the obvious.”
“That surface-to-air missile had to come from Russia, the training provided to operate that surface-to-air missile system likely came from Russia,” Hagel told Bloomberg TV. “Whether the Russians knew specifically about this incident or not, I don’t know… [But] the Russians are going to have to take some responsibility for it.”
The Kremlin has long denied any military involvement in Ukraine, a line echoed by the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. today.
“There are no Russian military on the Ukrainian territory,” the Embassy wrote to ABC News in an email. “Russia had nothing to do with the Malaysia Airlines flight.”
Responding to criticism from Australian officials overnight, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said such criticism should be directed “to the Ukrainian authorities, who bear full responsibility for what transpired on the territory of that country.”
“Those countries which actually encourage Kiev’s punitive operations against its own citizens in the southeast of the country, in spite of our repeated warnings, will have to share responsibility,” he said.