Russia is investigating whether sabotage experts from the United Kingdom’s Special Air Service (SAS) special forces have been deployed to western Ukraine.
Russia’s top state investigative body said on Saturday it was looking into a Russian media report alleging that the SAS had been sent to the Lviv region in Western Ukraine.
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Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted a Russian security source as saying that about 20 members of the SAS – an elite military force trained to conduct special operations, surveillance and counterterrorism – are operating in the country.
In a statement, Russia’s Investigative Committee said it would follow up on the report that the SAS had been sent in “to assist the Ukrainian special services in organising sabotage on the territory of Ukraine”.
The British Ministry of Defence had no immediate comment on the Russian investigation.
The UK sent military trainers to Ukraine earlier this year to instruct local forces in using anti-tank weapons. On February 17, a week before Russia’s invasion, the UK said it had pulled out all troops except those needed to protect its ambassador.
It was not clear what steps the Investigative Committee planned to take in response to any SAS involvement in Ukraine.
The possible presence of forces from a NATO country in Ukraine is significant given that Russia has issued warnings to the West not to get in the way of its invasion of Ukraine.
Since the start of the war, the UK has provided Ukraine with anti-ship, anti-aircraft and light anti-tank weapons, which have proved useful for mobile Ukrainian fighters to use against Russia’s armoured vehicles.
The British government confirmed this week that a small number of Ukrainian troops are being trained in the UK for the first time since the start of the Russian invasion.
The troops began training with armoured patrol vehicles donated by the UK this month, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday.
The spokesman said the UK, in conjunction with its allies, was providing new types of equipment to Ukrainian soldiers that they may not have used before.
“It is only sensible that they get requisite training to make best use of it,” the spokesman said.
“We are always conscious of anything perceived to be escalatory but clearly what is escalatory is the actions of [Vladimir] Putin’s regime.”
Members of the Ukrainian government visited a military camp in April on the UK’s Salisbury Plain where they were shown demonstrations of equipment, followed by discussions on how the government can supply weapons.
The UK’s military has been training Ukrainian forces since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. They were withdrawn in February to avoid direct conflict with Russian forces and the possibility of NATO being drawn into the conflict.
The United States military is also training Ukrainian troops on using howitzer artillery while the UK is training Ukrainians in Poland to use anti-aircraft weapons.