Reuters reported this week that for over the past month Russia has been sending mercenaries into eastern Ukraine to bolster pro-Moscow separatist forces who are in a standoff with the Ukrainian military. The report was based on interviews with "four unnamed fighters who had been recruited."
"They are gathering everybody with combat experience," one of Reuters' unnamed sources was cited as saying. The claim is that there's a big recruitment drive currently on in preparation for a Russian incursion into Donbass. However, as is perhaps typical with reports like this, the four Reuters soldiers which are sourced in the story remain completely anonymous and unverified.
The fighters were further cited as describing that they are in the midst of special training for "defensive and sabotage" operations in the Donbass.
The Kremlin's response to the allegations, which were also echoed in regional Meduza news outlet, was to say it has no knowledge of such movements of mercenaries into Ukraine, according to The Moscow Times:
Separatist leaders said they were either unaware of or not involved in the latest recruitment drive, Reuters reported.
The Kremlin, which maintains that any Russian nationals on the ground are there voluntarily, denied official links with Russian private military contractors in eastern Ukraine.
"It's the first we've heard of this and we don't know how reliable these assertions are," Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying.
But Moscow has lately leveled it's own dramatic accusations, at the start of the week saying the American contractors are currently in the Donbass region to prepare "provocations with unidentified chemical components."
Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as follows on Tuesday:
"They are setting up firing positions in residential buildings and socially important facilities and are training Ukrainian special operations forces and radical armed groups for active combat operations,” Shoygu claimed. "To carry out provocations, tanks with unspecified chemical components have been delivered to the towns of Avdeevka and Krasnyi Lyman."
After provocative allegation, the Pentagon responded quickly, with US spokesman John Kirby calling them flat out "false." The press secretary said, "Those statements by Minister Shoigu are completely false… they’re false."
For now it's likely that the accusations will continue to fly from both sides. The Russian side has said that the US and NATO have agreed to talks in Geneva concerning its draft 'security guarantees' document submitted last week, which aims to hammer out terms of agreement halting NATO's eastward expansion, which Putin has previously called a "red line". While these accusations of mercenaries are nothing new, the situation does indicate a rise in tensions not seen in eastern Ukraine in years, as the region remains on edge and both sides look for ways to cool the heated rhetoric and war-footing.