The U.S. said Russia may be directing attacks by separatist rebels in Ukraine as fighting in the battle-torn country’s easternmost regions spread to previously peaceful areas.
Jen Psaki, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman, cited the reports of fresh fighting, telling reporters in Washington yesterday that “these incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely under way in Donetsk and Luhansk.” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said “this information doesn’t correspond with reality.”
The violence in Ukraine expanded a day after Putin met his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, and hailed the talks as a step toward a political resolution. The government in Kiev said the fighting, which has claimed more than 2,000 lives according to the United Nations, has spread to the shores of the Sea of Azov, effectively opening a new front.
“There is little chance of a diplomatic breakthrough or a durable peace at the moment,” Alex Brideau, an analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington, said by e-mail. “None of the key parties -- Ukraine, the Donbass militants, or Russia -- has strong incentive to compromise. The fighting is increasingly headed towards a ‘frozen conflict.’”
Ukraine and its allies blame Russia for stoking the insurgency in the east with manpower and weapons, an allegation Russia denies. The five months of unrest have sparked the worst standoff between Russia and its former Cold War foes in two decades and unleashed sanctions on both sides.
The Kremlin is more openly backing the rebels in the wake of military successes by Ukrainian government troops, now with small Russian military formations moving into its neighbor’s territory, a senior NATO diplomat told reporters in Brussels on condition of anonymity. Russia has provided artillery and rocket support for the insurgents, from positions on both sides of the border, the diplomat said.
“It’s high time to finally protect this border and for any kind of military support of the separatists across this border to cease,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters yesterday in Berlin. “Russia has a big responsibility here.”
Russia regularly denies allegations that it’s involved in the fighting. In Minsk, Putin said there were no talks on conditions for a cease-fire because Russia isn’t a party to the conflict.
“We are not interested in pulling” the Ukrainian “state apart,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, adding that the rights of Russians should be defended everywhere.
Reports of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil need to be explained, Merkel told Putin during a phone call yesterday, Siebert said in an e-mail. The two leaders discussed the Minsk talks and both stressed the importance of continuing international efforts to promote de-escalation in Ukraine, Kremlin officials said in a statement about the call.
Putin also informed Merkel about Russia’s plans to send humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine, according to the statement. The U.S. and the European Union condemned the decision to send the first convoy of about 280 trucks last week, which the government in Kiev called an “invasion” after it crossed the border without authorization.
Peskov said that Russia is ready to send the aid “tomorrow” as Ukraine needs help as soon as possible. Shipments would be delivered in agreement with Ukraine and the Red Cross, he said.
“The Russians are all about process and are clearly playing for time to reinforce separatist positions or put in more troops and arms,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said by phone.
Ukraine’s military said yesterday that its forces killed 225 rebels and destroyed three tanks in the previous 24 hours. Thirteen government soldiers were killed and 36 wounded, a military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said at a briefing in Kiev.
“The invasion by Putin of the regular Russian army is a fait accompli,” Anton Heraschenko, an adviser to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, said on his Facebook page.
“Government forces were shelled ‘‘intensively’’ from Russian territory and were under attack from insurgents around Mariupol and Novoazovsk on the Sea of Azov coast, south of the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, Lysenko said. Government forces are in control of Novoazovsk, on the Russian border, he said.
Ukrainian troops are also fighting to maintain control of Ilovaysk, east of Donetsk, and two other towns, the military press service said on Facebook. There was no independent confirmation of the military figures for separatist deaths.
Yevhen Perebyinis, spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Kiev yesterday that ‘‘so far we have not seen concrete actions from Russia’’ to bring about a peaceful” resolution of the conflict and that words must be followed by deeds.
Poroshenko told reporters that attempts would be made to hold talks about a cease-fire “as soon as possible” though a trilateral contact group involving Ukraine, Russia and the EU. A truce would then be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, he said.