Kiev opens politically-charged trial of Russian troops

The soldiers were transferred to pre-trial detention on charges of terrorism, waging an aggressive war against Ukraine

Afp September 29, 2015
A Kiev district court judge questions one of the two captured Russian soldiers videoconference from a hospital on May 22, 2015 PHOTO: AFP

KIEV: Ukraine on Tuesday began hearing a case against two Russian soldiers it claims will prove Moscow's direct involvement in the conflict in the war-torn former Soviet state.

Troops captured the two men, both of whom were wounded, in May and interrogated them, broadcasting their alleged confessions in which they said they were active members of a Russian military intelligence unit operating in Ukraine.

But Moscow claims the two -- Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sergeant Aleksander Aleksandrov -- are "volunteers": retired servicemen who joined pro-Russian militias fighting in Ukraine's separatist east since early last year.

Read: Ukraine reports heavy tank battle with pro-Russians rebels

After being treated for their injuries, the two soldiers were then transferred to pre-trial detention on charges of "terrorism" and waging an "aggressive war" against Ukraine.

Prosecutors are seeking to have them jailed for life, their lawyer said.
"We will do everything to make sure that our citizens return home as soon as possible and get a chance to see their relatives and friends," Russian consul Alexei Gruby told reporters.

Sitting in the defendants' cage at Kiev district court as the charges were read out, both looked healthy although Yerofeyev's arm was still bandaged following an injury sustained during the gun battle which led to their capture in the industrial province of Lugansk.

"No one left us abandoned. We remain in contact with our family," Yerofeyev told reporters during a brief break in the preliminary hearings.

He said prosecutors were "pressuring" them into giving testimony favourable to their case, and said his parents were not present because "it was not safe".

Kiev has long accused Russia of both orchestrating and backing the eastern insurrection in the weeks that followed its March 2014 annexation of Ukraine's strategic Crimea peninsula.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko paints the conflict -- a brutal battle that has killed nearly 8,000 and devastated the strategic rust belt -- as Russia's retribution for the February 2014 ouster of Kiev's Moscow-backed leadership.

That development shattered Russian President Vladimir Putin's ambition of reuniting the former Soviet republics into a single political and economic union with the clout to challenge Washington and Brussels.

Read: Russian troops 'directly involved' in Ukraine conflict

Analysts believe Putin has recently changed his mind about seizing Ukraine's coal mine and steel mills because of the immense cost involved in rebuilding the ruined and destitute region.

But both Kiev and its Western allies fear Putin's main ambition now is to create a "frozen conflict" that keeps Ukraine's cash-strapped leadership off balance and ultimately dependent on Moscow's good will.

Ukraine and the European Union last year signed a landmark agreement that Poroshenko hopes will enable Kiev to apply for EU membership in 2020 and possible inclusion in NATO at a later date.

Russia views both as fundamental threats to its nationalist interests that it will fight with trade sanctions and nuclear arsenal upgrades.
But Poroshenko's greatest concern is that Ukraine's struggles have fallen off the political radar as a disjointed Europe faces a refugee crisis and Washington tries to counteract Russia's stepped up military presence in Syria.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly, US President Barack Obama said Washington was "prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict" in Syria.

And he justified the West's economic punitive measures again Russia over its annexation of Crimea as a morally necessary measure that did not mean a "return to a Cold War".


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