REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters after a session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Minsk, Belarus, on April 29, 2014.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin made two assertions that reflect how he wants the world to see the turmoil in eastern Ukraine: "I state responsibly: There are neither Russian instructors, nor special units, nor troops, no one there."
Moscow argues that the ongoing crisis across eastern Ukraine — separatists have violently seized official buildings in more than a dozen cities and are demanding referendums — was caused by a West-backed coup d'état.
“I think what is happening now shows us who really was mastering the process from the beginning. But in the beginning, the United States preferred to remain in the shadow,” Putin said, according to RIA Novosti.
However, it's becoming clearer that what's happening leads back to Russia through Crimea.
Igor Strelkov, a suspected Russian intelligence officer who has emerged as the face of the insurgency, recently told journalists that he and his men entered Ukraine from Crimea. Earlier this month, Putin admitted that the masked men in unmarked military uniforms who commandeered Crimea were Russian troops.
Furthermore, a medal being awarded by the Russian government to former Ukrainians says that the operation to "liberate" Crimea began on Feb. 20, the bloodiest day of the Maidan uprising, two days before Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev.
Strelkov also said that a third of the fighters, a mix of trained men in uniform with modern weapons and less organized local militiamen, are not Ukrainian.
Ukraine considers Strelkov to be " the chief commander of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine in charge of Russian Military Intelligence personnel, subversives, militants, and a network of Russian and Ukrainian agents working on behalf of Russia."
And although there are fewer "little green men" — Russian forces without insignia — in eastern Ukraine, the indications of a professional operation is clear.
As Peter Leonard of AP reports, " the eerie skill with which the green men anticipate Ukraine's every security move offers strong circumstantial evidence of Russian involvement."
So while Putin says he has sent "no one" to Ukraine and the West caused the crisis to begin with, Russian provocateurs are hiding in plain sight.
"What is happening in eastern Ukraine is a military operation that is well-planned and organized," U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, wrote on the NATO website, "and we assess that it is being carried out at the direction of Russia."
Pro-Russian armed men stand guard at a checkpoint after pro-Russian activists set tires on fire when Ukrainian soldiers arrived on armored personnel carriers, on the outskirts of Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine, on April 30, 2014.
Masked pro-Russia protesters stand guard outside a regional government building in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, on April 22, 2014.
A pro-Russian armed man stands guard near the state security service building in Slaviansk, April 23, 2014.
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