Ever since March 2014 when President Obama referred to Russian aggression against Ukraine as an "invasion," administration officials have avoided that word in conjunction with the ongoing conflict. In fact, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey R. Pyatt's declared on April 29, 2014, that "Russian troops crossing Ukraine's borders would be a major escalation, and would draw an inevitable, sharp reaction from the United States," implying that, President Obama's March remarks notwithstanding, no Russian troops had "invaded."
Even as recently as this week, Ambassador Samantha Power at the United Nations charged Russia with training, supplying, aiding, and arming separatists in Ukraine, but stopped short of saying that Russian troops were engaged across the border in Ukraine. And Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, in Kyiv for a meeting with Ukrainian finance minister Jaresko referred to the "ongoing military offensive... being carried out by Russia-backed separatists," but made no mention of Russian forces.
However, when asked to comment on remarks by a U.S. Army general that suggested Russian special operations forces are playing an active role in the conflict, a State Department spokesperson replied:
We cannot confirm specific numbers, but the Russian military has a significant presence in Ukraine. In late December, Russia transferred more than one hundred additional pieces of Russian military equipment and material to pro-Russia separatists. The latest transfer complements the previous transfer of hundreds of pieces of Russian military equipment provided to pro-Russia separatists since the September 5 Minsk ceasefire agreement, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery pieces, and other military vehicles.
There are several sites near the Ukraine border, which serve as staging points before transporting Russian military equipment to pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine. Russian combat forces remain deployed near the Ukraine border, and Russian military forces still operate in eastern Ukraine, where they play a coordinating role and provide ongoing tactical support to pro-Russia separatists.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has been more vocal about Russian military activity in eastern Ukraine beyond simply supplying and training separatists. In remarks Tuesday at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium, Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel suggested that Russian special operations forces are active in the conflict:
[A] resurgent Russia is now employing coercive techniques against its neighbor using [special operations] forces, other clandestine capabilities, information operations, other cyber operations and groupings of ethnic proxies and surrogates to drive wedges into our key allies in East Europe.
General Votel seemed to distinguish between the activities of Russian forces and "groupings of ethnic proxies and surrogates," presumably the separatist forces in Ukraine that have been fighting Ukrainian forces in the eastern part of that country since early 2014. When asked for comment, a DOD spokesperson said, "The general referred to the use of Special Operations Forces and Information Operations. In the US military, Special Operations Forces is an umbrella term for all special operations units to include units that conduct Military Information Support Operations or MISO. MISO, also referred to as Psychological Operations, is a subset of Information Operations and has nothing to do forces on the ground."
A second DOD spokesperson's comments mirrored those of the State Department, and also called on Russia to fulfill the Minsk agreement by "withdrawing all troops and weapons from eastern Ukraine":