The U.S. Department of State on Monday released photos of soldiers believed to belong to Russian special forces in eastern Ukraine even as Vice President Joe Biden met with Ukraine's interim president on a two-day visit where he is expected to announce various forms of aid to the strife-torn nation.
The State Department reportedly provided photos identifying Russian soldiers operating in eastern Ukraine to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to which Russia did not respond immediately. One particular photo shows a man who reportedly participated in Russian operations in Georgia in 2008, and has now been photographed in the cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine while other photos show men reportedly in Russian uniforms entering Ukrainian government buildings.
“There’s a strong connection between Russia and the armed militants that we’ve seen in eastern Ukraine and Crimea and other places. So this is more just further photographic evidence of that,” Jen Psaki, a state department spokeswoman, said in a press briefing Monday, adding: “We’re not making a court of law case here. We’re just showing that this is photographic evidence that indicates the connection we’ve been talking about for weeks now.”
Meanwhile, Biden, who is on a two-day visit to Ukraine that began Monday, met with the interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, and is expected to announce a relief package for the country that will focus on energy and economic aid, Reuters reported, even as signs grew of a collapse of a pact signed in Geneva last week during a meeting between Russia, Ukraine, the U.S. and the European Union.
While the U.S. and Ukraine's interim government have repeatedly accused Russia of maintaining a presence in eastern Ukraine and the U.S. has threatened further sanctions against Russia, President Vladimir Putin has denied such claims.
However, the country's east has seen a continuation of violence as pro-Russia separatists have occupied government buildings in Ukraine. Russia has blamed Kiev for violating the Geneva agreement, which was signed Thursday, and for the growing unrest in the region. Two bodies were reportedly pulled from a river in a city controlled by pro-Russian militants on Monday following clashes at a checkpoint near the city of Slovyansk on Sunday, which killed three people.
“There are no Russian units in eastern Ukraine – no special services, no tactical advisors. All this is being done by the local residents, and the proof of that is the fact that those people have literally removed their masks,” Putin said in a direct line to radio channels on April 17, according to the Kremlin, adding: “The Federation Council of Russia gave the President the right to use the Armed Forces in Ukraine. I very much hope that I will not have to exercise this right and that, through political and diplomatic means, we will be able to resolve all the pressing, if not to say burning, issues in Ukraine.”