Ukraine and Russia clashed over accusations about an alleged border incursion by Russian military vehicles as a humanitarian convoy awaits permission to enter Ukraine.
The military in Kiev said Russia continues to aid militants with equipment and confirmed that vehicles crossed over from its neighbor’s side under the cover of darkness last night. The border violation, which Ukraine said it doesn’t consider the start of a possible invasion, was confirmed by NATO. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, called the reports a “canard.”
“What we need now is clear: a de-escalation,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said today in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “We need to stop traffic through the border, mercenaries, money, weaponry, anything. We need now to stop Russian influence.”
The standoff is adding to unease over plans by Russia, which has about 275 trucks parked near its western border loaded with what it says is humanitarian aid for rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine. European Union governments warned Russia against using humanitarian missions as cover to bring troops into Ukraine, expressing frustration at the Kremlin’s refusal to heed calls to de-escalate the conflict.
EU ministers gathered for an emergency meeting to discuss developments in Ukraine, Iraq and Gaza. With Hungary and Slovakia calling for a reversal of sanctions imposed, the talks probably won’t lead to any new measures on Russia. A press conference is scheduled for about 6 p.m. in Brussels.
Putin, whose country has been under increasing international pressure for supporting separatists in Ukraine, pledged during a visit to Crimea yesterday that he would work to halt the conflict.
Russian stocks gained for the sixth day, with the benchmark Micex Index headed for its strongest weekly performance since May, after Putin’s conciliatory remarks. The Micex increased 0.8 percent to 1,418.86 at 5:07 p.m. in Moscow. Ukraine’s hryvnia plunged 1.3 percent against dollar, forcing the central bank to sell dollars to support the currency, according to the Unian news service.
The incursion last night isn’t seen by Ukraine as a new development or a possible start of an invasion by Russia, Defense Ministry spokesman Leonid Matyukhin said by phone. The vehicles were painted white to camouflage the operation as a peacekeeping mission, he said. The military column, which wasn’t part of Russia’s convoy delivering humanitarian aid, rolled into insurgent-held territory, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the military, told reporters in Kiev today.
The conflict is coming to a head as Ukrainian government forces push to dislodge pro-Russian insurgents from their strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk. The authorities in Kiev have been saying for months that the separatist rebels are receiving reinforcements from Russian territory.
Russia has only forces deployed to patrol its side of the frontier and its troops didn’t cross into Ukraine, the state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported, citing the FSB security service’s border guard division. Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, declined to comment.
News outlets including The Guardian reported seeing 23 armored personnel vehicles crossing into Ukraine last night. The column, trailed by fuel trucks and other support vehicles marked with official Russian military plates, entered Ukraine using a rough dirt track through a breach in a barbed-wire fence that marks the frontier, according to the newspaper.
In another incident, unmarked light armored personnel vehicles were seen headed toward the frontier in the direction of Ukraine at about 8 a.m. Moscow time today. A dozen treaded military vehicles carrying armed men without insignia rolled across railroad tracks and headed toward the Izvaryno post at the border with the Luhansk region, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.
A soldier accompanying the armored column, who wouldn’t give his name, told a Bloomberg reporter that they were moving toward the border and weren’t assisting in Russia’s humanitarian delivery.
About 275 trucks were parked in a field nearby, close to the Russian town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky. Ukraine, which has warned that it would treat an attempt by the convoy to cross the border in violation of international law as aggression, sent dozens of officials to join Red Cross representatives in inspecting the cargo on the Russian side of the border.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it’s deploying additional staff to Russian and Ukraine in preparation for aid delivery. Both sides have asked the organization for assistance.
“We still need assurances from all parties to conflict staff will be allowed to perform tasks safely, with due respect for humanitarian principles,” Laurent Corbaz, the Red Cross’s head of operations for Europe, said in an e-mailed statement. “Given complex logistics, security challenges involved, this aid operation will take some time, we call on authorities of both countries to do all they can to resolve outstanding issues quickly.”
Russia yesterday proposed a cease-fire for humanitarian aid deliveries to war-torn parts of southeastern Ukraine. Ukraine continues to come under shelling from Russian territory and would only agree to a bilateral truce if all key conditions are met, including establishing control over the border, Klimkin said.
The dispute over the convoy has stoked tensions between the two countries, with Russia saying the supplies are needed to help citizens of Luhansk and Donetsk, where fighting has cut off water and power connections.
Eleven civilians were killed and eight wounded yesterday in Donetsk when it came under bombardment, the city council said on its website. Six Donetsk districts and the nearby city of Mospyne were shelled, with several buildings destroyed, according to the statement.
Russia sent the humanitarian convoy this week. Meanwhile, the government in Kiev dispatched its own trucks with supplies.
Three Ukrainian convoys left government-controlled areas yesterday for the Luhansk region, where the fighting has cut water and power supplies.
The military has urged people to leave Donetsk and Luhansk as it seeks to complete the encirclement that would shut routes to the Russian border and sever separatist supply lines. About half of the cities’ 1.5 million residents have fled, while most shops are closed.
Putin, visiting the Crimea peninsula he annexed from Ukraine in March, said that Russia shouldn’t isolate itself and that he would try to stop the fighting that’s flared for months between pro-Russian separatists and government forces, killing more than 1,500 people, according to United Nations estimates. The U.S and the EU have slapped sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals, and Ukraine’s parliament passed a bill yesterday allowing similar measures.
Putin and European Commission President Jose Barroso agreed by telephone yesterday to meet in person to discuss relations between Russia and the EU, the Kremlin said in an e-mailed statement. The time and place of the meeting have yet to be set.
In a sign of growing divisions within the 28-nation bloc, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said today that the EU is damaging itself economically by penalizing Russia. Slovak Premier Robert Fico yesterday called the exchange of sanctions “senseless” and said they weaken the EU.
“Western sanctions, which automatically trigger a Russian response, cause greater harm to us than the Russians,” Orban said in a public radio interview. “In politics, we call this shooting oneself in the foot.”