Ukrainian government forces battled a rebel convoy of armored vehicles, including the first reported separatist tanks, after Russia failed to stop them from crossing the countries’ shared border.
Troops destroyed part of the convoy, which comprised three tanks and a number of armored personnel carriers that crossed through checkpoints seized by rebels, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said today in Kiev. He said Russia had’t followed through on a pledge from a meeting this week to strengthen the 2,300 kilometer (1,400 mile) frontier.
“Columns of armored personnel vehicles and artillery have entered through checkpoints seized by terrorists,” Avakov told a news conference. He said Ukrainian forces attacked two of the tanks by the town of Horlivka in the Donetsk region. “A battle is under way. I can’t comment yet about the result, but I can say that part of this column has been destroyed.”
Avakov’s statement marks the first time Ukraine has accused President Vladimir Putin’s government of allowing armored vehicles to cross its border to take up the side of separatists trying split from the former Soviet republic and join Russia. It also signals an escalation in fighting that has intensified following the May 25 election victory of Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko.
The two presidents spoke today by phone, Russia’s Interfax news service reported, citing Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. Poroshenko informed Putin of his plan to resolve the conflict in Ukraine’s easternmost regions, according to Peskov.
The fighting raged after Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reached an agreement in Kiev on June 10 to implement a peace plan drawn up by Poroshenko and on priorities for de-escalation. Ukraine blames Putin for fomenting the unrest. Russia says Ukraine must stop using force against its own citizens in the mostly Russian-speaking east.
“Russia must stop supporting the separatists,” Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, told reporters today in Kiev. “It must stop the tanks that are being sent in now. We will pass this information, which will be proven with documents, to our international partners. It’s real proof Russia is sending military weapons to Ukraine, which violates all international laws.”
Poroshenko ordered the creation of an evacuation corridor on June 10 so civilians can flee fighting that has killed hundreds of people including government soldiers, separatists and civilians. Russia said yesterday that no corridor had been created and Ukraine had rejected an offer of aid.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov instead said the country would provide assistance via the separatist rebels, which Ukraine says have been reinforced by Russian army veterans and other volunteers.
Russia also started military exercises in its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, which is wedged between NATO members Poland and Lithuania, according to a statement on the Russian Defense Ministry’s website.
It sent a squadron of Su-34 fighter bombers as well as Su-24 and Su-27 aircraft to join 24 warships in the area, the Defense Ministry said. The exercise coincided with similar maneuvers in the Baltics by North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations, which have rushed to step up their military posture following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.