The leader of the pro-Russian separatists warring with Ukrainian forces in the country's southeastern border has claimed that thousands of Russian military are supporting their offensive. "There have been around 3,000-4,000 of them in our ranks," separatist leader and Donetsk People's Republic Prime Minister Aleksandr Zakharchenko announced on Russian state television, claiming these Russian forces are former servicemen and current soldiers on leave.

"There are active soldiers fighting among us who preferred to spend their vacation not on the beach, but with us, among their brothers, who are fighting for their freedom," Zakharchenko said. The rebel commander's qualification that the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine are not active duty soldiers appears to be made in order to further avoid allegations from the West and E.U. that Russia has long been involved in the conflict. From the New York Times:

The new southeastern front raised fears that the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea. If successful, it could give them or Russia control over the entire Sea of Azov and the gas and mineral riches that energy experts believe it contains. Ukraine already has lost roughly half its coastline, several major ports and significant Black Sea mineral rights in March when Russia annexed Crimea.

Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, confirmed through his Twitter account in the morning hours Thursday that there is indeed a Russian military presence in Ukraine.

In response, Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenk called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"The world needs to pay attention to the sharply worsening situation in Ukraine," Poroshenk said during a televised press conference in Kiev.

[Image via AP]