Kremlin Tells Reporters Not To Believe Their Eyes In Crimea

Russian President Putin says that there are no extra Russian troops in Crimea — but that claim is being disputed by officials and journalists, who speak of soldiers fanning out across the peninsula.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow has not sent troops to Crimea, despite being authorized to do so. Russia's defense minister says reports of Russian forces fanning out across Crimea are complete nonsense. And yet Ukrainian and Western officials as well as witnesses and journalists in Crimea tell a very different story. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from the Crimean capital of Simferopol.

And first, if those aren't Russian troops, Peter, guarding military and government sites in Crimea, who are they according to Russian officials?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: According to President Vladimir Putin, these are pro-Russian Crimean self-defense units who are standing guard. Russia's foreign minister says the same thing; so does the defense minister who dismissed photographic evidence to the contrary as provocations.

CORNISH: Now, this explanation hasn't satisfied Western leaders, or the government in Kiev. What do they say?

KENYON: Well, the West is promising political and economic responses to Russia's military presence here. The Ukrainian security chief, Andriy Parubiy, told reporters today that no matter what Putin may say, those are Russian troops guarding the Ukrainian bases in Crimea. He says the Russian denials might be intended for Western audiences who don't know the situation better but for Ukraine, there's no question these are Russian troops, and they've been here for days.

CORNISH: And you've spent several days there as well. What light can you shed on this dispute?

KENYON: Well, first of all, the claim that all of this military work is being done by self-defense forces doesn't stand up to the visible evidence. The self-defense units are more or less ragtag bunch of irregulars - all ages, fitness levels; very lightly armed. These other men are uniformly younger. They're wearing Russian uniforms without insignias. They're much better armed. They even have the so-called tiger vehicles with heavy machine guns mounted on top.

Now, not only is this not the kind of gear the self-defense units would have, many of these vehicles have Russian military license plates. And now the - Russia's defense minister today, while denying the troop presence, was forced to admit that he had no idea where those vehicles came from.

CORNISH: Now, Peter, is it possible that these Russian fprces are all from the Black Sea fleet, which is based in Sevastopol?

KENYON: Yes. This is important, and a bit complicated. Under an agreement with Ukraine, Russia can maintain - has maintained at least 15,000 personnel in this base at Sevastopol, as the Black Sea fleet. It's virtually a certainty that many of the soldiers we've seen here are coming from that base or the Russian coastal forces. But there are limits to where they can go and what they can do; and that certainly wouldn't cover, for instance, truckloads of Russians coming across by ferry into northern Crimea after securing the border post on the other side.

So no matter how you look at it, the Russian denials are problematic. They claim they were invited in, but the prime minister was appointed amid a roomful of heavily armed men. His authority's in question, to say the least. And the notion that all these men are self-defense forces strains credulity to the breaking point.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome.

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