With more than 100,000 Russian troops massing at the border with Ukraine, a recent court case in Russia serves as one more reminder that Russia has had a presence in Ukraine since the separatist conflict began in 2014.
A court in Russia's Rostov oblast, near the occupied part of Ukraine's Donbas region, issued a verdict in a bribery case. The ruling implies that Russian forces are already in the Donbas region.
The defendant in the case was V.N. Zabaluev, manager of a company tasked with supplying food to the Russian armed forces deployed in the "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) and "Luhansk People's Republic" (LNR), Russia's two puppet states in Donbas.
According to the verdict, Zabaluev had paid bribes to military officers to facilitate his supply operation.
In one part of the verdict, the document states: "This food was intended to be sent to military units of the Russian Armed Forces stationed on the territory of the DNR and LNR."
The revelation was covered in multiple major Russian media outlets such as Interfax and RBK. When asked about the verdict, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed it must have been written in error.
"Probably, we are talking about the mistake of those who wrote this text," Peskov said. "Because this is impossible. There are no Russian armed forces on the territory of the self-proclaimed republics."
This is likely false based on the document and Russia's history of supporting the separatist war in Donbas.
Notably, the document was removed from the court's website after Russian media reported on the verdict. The page had already been archived, however.
Beginning in late February 2014, Russian troops in Crimea and reinforcements from Russia spread out over the Crimean Peninsula to organize a phony referendum to justify its annexation. A subsequent war in Donbas was launched by Russian mercenaries and sustained by Russian military aid.
Evidence of Russian presence in Donbas includes weapons systems never used or purchased by Ukraine's military; an unusual abundance of sophisticated heavy weapons, such as modern battle tanks with trained crews; social media videos and photos posted by the Russian troops there; captured Russian troops; and memorial notices on the social media pages of Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine.
To date, Russian officials have been unable to provide a convincing explanation as to how the "Donetsk People's Republic" and "Luhansk People's Republic" have managed to own and operate well-provisioned military forces for nearly eight years without any local arms manufacturing capability and no port facilities.
Russia is the only country sharing an international border with them.
It's implausible that the court document could have been a "mistake," as Peskov said. The document specifically uses the acronyms DNR and LNR, which have no Russian analogs.
According to an account by CBS News:
"The document was first spotted by a Ukraine watcher who posts under the Twitter handle Necro_Mancer and reported by RFE/RL." [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a sister U.S.-funded news organization to VOA]
"The defendant had told the court that some drivers were paid relatively large sums of money — between $880 and $1,090 — for one delivery route due to 'the complexity and danger of the route.'
"The defendant said the drivers were 'risking their own lives at the border,' had to remove their government license plates, hand over documents and proceed to unloading docks escorted by the receiving party.
"Food supplies to the people's republics were scheduled once every two weeks, the verdict said. One caravan consisted of more than 70 vehicles, capable of transporting 1,300 tons of cargo, including flour, canned food and fresh vegetables. One such shipment was estimated to have cost over $1 million."
Since November, Russian military forces have been building up on Ukraine's borders, creating the necessary logistical and command and control infrastructure needed for large-scale military operations. Although Russian officials state there is no plan for a larger invasion, there are no scheduled exercises to explain the deployments.
Russian leaders have recently issued demands to the U.S. and NATO for "security assurances," including a pledge not to allow countries such as Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, the 30-member U.S.-European defense alliance that includes Turkey and Canada.