Ukraine said pro-Russian militants intensified attacks on government troops overnight in a bid to win ground, a sign the recent surge in fighting is worsening.
Tensions in the 16-month conflict rose this week as the army reported renewed assaults on a village in the Donetsk region, an accusation the separatists deny. That prompted Ukraine to redeploy heavy artillery there that was removed under a February peace accord. The rebels, who control large swathes of the former Soviet republic’s easternmost regions, are trying to advance again toward the village, located near the port of Mariupol, military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.
“The main reason for the escalation is that we see a standstill in the peace process,” Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta research institute in Kiev, said by phone on Wednesday. “But I don’t think there’s a risk of a serious new conflict.”
The conflict, which the United Nations estimates has killed more than 6,700 people, has threatened to boil over several times as Ukraine, Russia and the separatists jostle over implementing the peace pact brokered by Germany and France in Minsk, Belarus. German and French officials have discussed the recent unrest with Ukraine’s government, while the U.S. tightened sanctions against Russia last week. President Vladimir Putin denies Russia is stoking the conflict.
The insurgents “shamelessly violate the truce accords,” Lysenko said Wednesday by phone. He said they’re using arms that include mobile rocket systems banned under the cease-fire. One soldier died in the past day, the military reported.
Ukraine, which adopted the European Union’s penalties against Russia, will send a “second package of sanctions” to the National Defense and Security Council on Wednesday following the U.S. decision, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the weekly government meeting without elaborating.
For more, read this QuickTake: Standoff in Ukraine
The year-end deadline for fulfilling the Minsk agreement should be extended into 2016, Denis Pushilin, chief negotiator for the rebels’ self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday. Ukraine isn’t complying with the terms of the deal and war is the only alternative to the accords, he said.
Ukraine sticks to the Minsk accords while forming “active defense” by reinforcing its military with new weapons and equipment, Oleksandr Turchynov, head of the security council, said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday as he visited the conflict zone.
“New and already deployed artillery is kept at a distance agreed in the Minsk protocol,” Turchynov said. “However, active defense envisages fast and effective reaction to any enemy provocations.”
The military escalation comes as Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko visits creditors in California to try to reach an agreement to restructure $19 billion of foreign debt. The government is in an economic bind with gross domestic product plunging more than 16 percent in the first half and the hryvnia this year’s second-worst performer globally against the dollar.
Lysenko also accused the insurgents of trying to scare away observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who’re stationed in eastern Ukraine to monitor the cease-fire.
The OSCE has said in recent days that it believes civilian protests against it in rebel-held territory were orchestrated by the separatists. It said three of its vehicles were destroyed and four more were damaged in an Aug. 9 arson attack in Donetsk, the conflict zone’s biggest city.
“That was the people’s fury,” deputy rebel commander Eduard Basurin said by phone from Donetsk. “People don’t understand that the OSCE doesn’t have a mandate to defend but only to observe. The OSCE should explain that.”