In a totally unsurprising development, there seems to be mounting and significant evidence that pro-Russia Ukrainian separatists are probably actual Russian soldiers.
The New York Times reached this conclusion after comparing a number of photographs of the militia to those of "activists" in Crimea and Russian soldiers who fought in the Chechen war.
The Times analysis reveals that one bearded gentleman bearing a Russian Special Forces patch in one photo, taken in Georgia in 2008, looks suspiciously like a "Ukrainian" separatist seen in the east Ukrainian cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. Other photos show men who appeared in a military group photo, taken in Russia, in those two cities as well.
The Times also points out that the Ukrainian separatists use the same helmets as Russian troops, and that the armed men in Crimea and east Ukraine dress in basically the same way.
Also, Russia has a penchant for waging "special wars" in just this way. The Times explains:
Masking the identity of its forces, and clouding the possibilities for international denunciation, is a central part of the Russian strategy, developed over years of conflict in the former Soviet sphere, Ukrainian and American officials say. John R. Schindler, a former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer who now teaches at the Naval War College, calls it “special war”: “an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense.”
NATO's General Philip Breedlove offered his own analysis last week, saying that "the pro-Russian 'activists' in eastern Ukraine exhibit tell-tale military training and equipment and work together in a way that is consistent with troops who are part of a long-standing unit, not spontaneously stood up from a local militia." He also said that "the weapon handling discipline and professional behavior of these forces is consistent with a trained military force."
The standoff between Ukrainian forces and the most-likely Russian ones was tense but largely peaceful for some time. Over the weekend, however, a deadly gunfight in east Ukraine broke out between the two sides, and at least one pro-Ukraine journalist is being held by separatists for "war crimes."
Meanwhile, Russia seems to be enjoying the fruits of its (denied) labor in Crimea. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced a draft law to establish gambling zones in the resort peninsula, in part to normalize the idea that Crimea is just another district that needs managing.