The truce in Ukraine may be facing the most serious test in more than three months as the government in Kiev said pro-Russian rebels were staging a large-scale offensive.
The army repelled an attack on the Donetsk-region town of Maryinka by separatists who then switched their focus to other nearby locations, spokesman Yevhen Sylkin said on Channel 5. The rebels said they were halting an assault by the army. The ruble extended losses, though Ukrainian assets advanced.
The latest fighting risks endangering a cease-fire sealed in Belarus, which has curbed deaths in the more-than-yearlong conflict. It may also reignite calls to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons. The former Soviet republic, backed by the U.S. and the European Union, needs the truce to hold as it seeks to revive its shrinking economy and fragile currency.
“Escalation is becoming more and more likely,” said Joerg Forbrig, senior program director at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “In the U.S., Canada and some EU countries, the debate about supplies of lethal weapons will emerge again.”
Even as the fighting erupted, Ukraine’s hryvnia strengthened 0.6 percent against the dollar, paring this year’s plunge to 24.5 percent, the third-worst performance among more than 170 currencies tracked by Bloomberg. Government bonds due 2017 jumped more than 2 cents to 49.9 cents on the dollar as restructuring talks with creditors continue.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk reiterated allegations that Russia is engineering the unrest and supplying the rebels. Russia, which has been sanctioned by the EU and the U.S. for its role in Ukraine, denies involvement.
“Russia once again violated the Minsk accords,” Yatsenyuk said in a statement, accusing Ukraine’s larger neighbor of “ordering its terrorists to launch military operation.”
The U.S. is “disturbed” by reports that combined Russian and separatist forces launched attacks “on the Ukrainian side of the cease-fire line,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington.
“Russia bears direct responsibility” for the attacks, she said. “Any efforts to seize more territory will be met with increased costs.”
Eduard Basurin, a rebel official, sought to shift the blame for the fighting, alleging a “provocative offensive” from the Ukrainian army.
“There’s no offensive on our part,” he said by phone. “They leave territory and we occupy it.”
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Russia blamed Ukraine for the escalation, with President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, saying his nation is “extremely worried” about army “provocations.”
“Moscow is very closely watching and is extremely worried about the provocative actions by the Ukrainian armed forces which are largely, as far as we can judge, provoking the situation,” he said.
The ruble fell to a two-month low, weakening 2.8 percent to 54.242 versus the dollar at 7:52 p.m. in Moscow, while the Micex Index of stocks lost 0.9 percent.
U.S. intelligence officials say Wednesday’s attacks may be a probe of Ukrainian forces as a prelude to a move against the port city of Mariupol that separatists have promised. Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified assessments, said the Russian-backed forces’ goal may be to surround the city and force it to surrender.
NATO views the Sea of Azov port city as a key objective for any rebel bid to create a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the territory Putin annexed from Ukraine last year. The rebels have no plans to advance toward the strategic city of Mariupol, Basurin said, according to the Interfax news service.
The battles in Maryinka, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Donetsk, the conflict zone’s biggest city, killed three servicemen and wounded 31, the military said. As many as 1,000 insurgents attacked, along with at least 10 tanks and howitzers, according to the army, which redeployed artillery that had previously been pulled back.
Local police said one civilian died and four were injured. Government troops said they’re holding positions, while parts of the town are burning. It wasn’t possible to verify the information independently.
Two civilians were also reported to have died in the neighboring Luhansk region as mortar fire hit their car.
As fighting worsened, the debate on whether to arm Ukraine continued. While Russia may use such a move as a pretext for further military engagement, the time has arrived to examine the possibility more seriously, according to former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen
“We have reached the stage now where individual nations should consider the delivery of defensive weapons to the Ukrainians to make them more capable,” Rasmussen said in an interview on BBC Radio’s “Today” program.