A Ukrainian military vehicle participates in military exercises near Goncharovsk village of the Chernigov area in Ukraine, March 14, 2014. Ukrainian forces have been battling Russian government and separatist forces since early 2014, when Moscow seized control of Crimea. Photo: UPI/Sergey Starostenko | License Photo
KIEV, Ukraine, May 28 (UPI) -- Despite repeated denials from Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime are still keeping up the fight against Ukraine with military and pro-Russia forces there, an independent investigation has concluded.
Since overtaking Crimea a year ago, Russia's military presence has been a constant in the region -- supplemented by pro-Moscow separatists within Ukraine fighting against the Kiev government, in what some say is Putin's attempt at regaining what was once part of the Soviet Union.
Putin, however, has dismissed the allegations as nothing more than Western propaganda.
Independent experts, though, seeking to verify or reject those claims, have undertaken an ambitious investigation into the matter -- the results of which will officially be released Thursday by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research group.
The conclusion: The Kremlin is still fighting Ukraine.
Researchers utilized a number of technologies and investigation techniques, such as Google maps and social media channels, to make that determination.
"Independent researchers, using open sources and rigorous methodology, have demonstrated that Russian troops and Russian weapons have been an important part of the fight in Ukraine's east," former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John E. Herbst, also one of the report's authors, said.
The investigators also used satellite photos as part of the probe, and said images have revealed a strong Russian presence where Moscow claims there isn't any.
"President Vladimir Putin continues to deny Russian involvement in the fighting, but the evidence is overwhelming and indisputable," the report says.
"Russia is present in eastern Ukraine," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday, in a report by the New York Times. "This is something we have from our own intelligence. But in addition to our own intelligence, it is based on open sources."
Titled, "Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin's War in Ukraine," the report says in addition to the Russian military's presence there, Moscow continues to arm separatists. The research says Russian troops are also being stationed along the Ukraine border and firing rockets into the country.
"Russian training camps stationed along the Ukrainian border are the launching points of Russia's war in Ukraine," the report says. "These camps are the staging ground for Russian military equipment transported into Ukraine, soon to join the separatist arsenal, and for Russian soldiers mobilized across Russia to cross into Ukraine."
The investigation says Russia's military has even taken great measures to hide their activity, such as masking the government insignias on vehicles and soldiers' uniforms -- and the report accuses Moscow of using a February ceasefire to strategically move troops and equipment to advantageous positions against Ukraine
"The West must also recognize that Putin has used each lull in combat, now under the cover of the negotiated ceasefire in Minsk, to further reinforce Russian and Russian-backed forces in Ukraine's east and to prepare for the next stage of fighting," the investigators wrote.
The report urged Western governments to, among other things, publicly expose Russia's activity in Ukraine and "devote substantially more intelligence assets to unveiling and countering Putin's war in Ukraine."
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry showed Putin photographic evidence of military activity during a meeting in Sochi, and NATO acquired satellite photos showing the same last year.
Moscow, though, has dismissed that photographic evidence as "disinformation."
"I can tell you outright and unequivocally that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine," Putin said last month.
Thursday's report comes as European nations prepare to vote next month whether to lift economic sanctions that have dogged Moscow since its seizing of Crimea last year -- a punishment the report's authors believe, by itself, has been ineffective.
"The way to end Putin's aggression toward Ukraine and further intervention in Europe's East is not through economic sanctions alone," the report says. "Putin can blame economic pain on the West and avoid the real issue. The West needs to reveal the lies that Putin is telling his own people. Putin's popular support is the base of his house of cards.
"Once that card falls, the whole house will crumble."