The U.S. said Russia is firing artillery across its border into Ukraine, the first time American officials have publicly alleged such direct participation in fighting on behalf of separatists.
“Russia is firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainian military positions,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters today in Washington, offering no evidence for what she described only as information “from our intelligence friends.”
The allegations are at odds with Russian denials that the country is aiding the pro-Russian rebels fighting the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine. Questions about Russia’s role have grown since the downing of a civilian plane on July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew members.
The U.S. has said that a surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by the rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down the plane, while stopping short of alleging direct involvement by Russia.
The artillery fire from Russian military units near the border was aimed at Ukrainian military targets, according to Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
“There’s no question this is an escalation” of Russia’s military involvement, Warren said.
The firing at Ukrainian military positions started about two weeks ago, according to a U.S. intelligence official who isn’t authorized to speak publicly. The firings have been from artillery and not mobile rocket launchers, the official said.
In her briefing today, Harf also said that the U.S. has “new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple-rocket launchers to the separatist forces in Ukraine.”
Harf, a former spokeswoman for the Central Intelligence Agency, declined to say how the U.S. reached its conclusions on Russian intentions and activity. “I can’t tell you what the information’s based on,” she said.
Three U.S. intelligence officials who briefed reporters on July 22 on the downing of Malaysian Air Flight MH17 said they have evidence of Russia supplying the separatists with heavy weaponry, including multiple-rocket launchers and tanks. The officials, who discussed classified information on condition of anonymity, also released what they said was a photograph of a site near Rostov, Russia, that is used to train rebels fighting Ukraine’s military.
They made no mention at the time of any direct firing of artillery from Russia into Ukraine.
The new allegation of Russian involvement comes as the U.S. presses European allies to impose heavier economic sanctions on Russia. The European Union is preparing to sanction Russia’s most senior spies and security officials, according to a draft document obtained by Bloomberg News.
In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned after his coalition government collapsed and President Petro Poroshenko signaled his support for early elections.
Even as economic sanctions against Russia build, President Vladimir Putin will resist mounting pressure to abandon the rebels because he refuses to be seen as weak, according to three people familiar with Kremlin discussions.