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Ukraine opens high-stakes trial of captured Russians

AFP , Tuesday 29 Sep 2015
Ukrainian troops (File Photo: Reuters)

Ukraine on Tuesday launched the criminal trial of two captured Russian soldiers it claims will prove Moscow's direct but covert involvement the conflict in the war-torn former Soviet state.

Kiev's forces seized the two wounded men during a May gun battle that violated a ceasefire the warring sides had signed up to under stronger European pressure three months earlier.

The military then controversially broadcast the pair's alleged confessions to being active members of an elite Russian military intelligence unit performing a reconnaissance mission under Moscow's orders in Ukraine's eastern war zone.

Russia insists the two -- Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sergeant Aleksander Aleksandrov -- were "volunteers": off-duty servicemen who joined pro-Kremlin militias fighting in Ukraine's industrial heartland since early last year.

The captives were initially treated in a Kiev military hospital before being transferred to pre-trial detention on charges of "terrorism" and waging an "aggressive war" against Russia's Westward-leaning neighbour.

Prosecutors have signalled they will ask the judge to jail the men for life -- a decision that has only stoked Moscow's fury at Kiev's pro-Western leadership.

"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.

The pair looked relatively healthy and clean-shaven as they listened glumly -- Yerofeyev's wounded arm still in a sling -- to the charges from inside a white metal defendants' cage in a Kiev district court.

"We haven't been abandoned. We remain in contact with our family," Yerofeyev told reporters a swarm of reporters during a brief break in the preliminary hearings.

He also accused prosecutors of "pressuring" them into giving testimony favourable to the Ukrainian case.

A higher Kiev court will next decide where and when to hold the formal proceedings. Ukrainian rules require defendants to face trial near the site of the alleged crime -- impossible in this case because the men were captured in a rebel-run part of separatist Lugansk.

The date of the next hearing is yet to be set.

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 devastating conflict -- which has killed more than 8,000 people -- 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.

Analysts believe Putin has recently changed his mind about seizing Ukraine's coal mines 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 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.

US President Barack Obama told the UN General Assembly that Washington was "prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict" in the Middle Eastern state.

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

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