Germany Warns of Eastern Ukraine Escalation Risk After Clashes

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Germany warned that the conflict in Ukraine was at risk of spinning out of control after a pickup in fighting on Wednesday resulted in the biggest clashes in three months.

Fighting subsided after the country’s military said it repelled an attack by as many as 1,000 pro-Russian separatists on the Donetsk-region town of Maryinka. Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 39 wounded during the past 24 hours, Yuriy Biryukov, a military adviser to President Petro Poroshenko, said on Facebook on Thursday. The ruble continued to drop.

The latest fighting risks endangering a cease-fire sealed in Belarus in February, which has curbed deaths in the more-than-yearlong conflict. Ukraine and its partners, including the U.S and the European Union, accuse Russia of stoking the conflict by sending personnel and weapons. The Kremlin has denied military involvement.

“The threat of Russia waging large-scale war against Ukraine is permanent,” Poroshenko told lawmakers in Kiev on Thursday. He said that Russia has 9,000 troops in Ukraine while the number of its forces near the border has risen 50 percent. The threat of a wider conflict is “colossal,” he said.

The flare-up in violence pushed investors to reassess the sanctions risk for Russian assets, sending the ruble tumbling 2.9 percent on Wednesday, its biggest drop in more than six weeks. The currency slumped another 1.5 percent to 55.09 against the dollar as of 4:30 p.m. in Moscow, its weakest in almost two months. The Ukrainian hryvnia fell 0.5 percent to 21.05 per dollar.

Diplomatic Clash

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Klimkin in Berlin, warned that there’s a risk of the conflict spinning out of control. Steinmeier urged Russia to help quell the fighting after what he described as “grave” breaches of the cease-fire.

The escalation also sparked a diplomatic clash between Russia and the U.S., whose relationship was chilled to its worst since the Cold War as the Ukrainian crisis unfolded.

Russia bears “direct responsibility” for preventing attacks in Ukraine by “combined Russian-separatist forces” and for implementing a cease-fire, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a briefing Wednesday.

“Any attempts to seize additional Ukrainian territory will be met with increased costs,” she said.

‘Provoke Tensions’

Russia and the rebels blamed Ukraine for the escalation, with President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, saying the government in Kiev is trying to destabilize the region known as Donbas.

“The attempts to destabilize, to provoke tensions are evident,” Peskov told reporters on conference call Thursday. “Those provocations are organized by the Ukrainian armed forces.”

Ukraine’s parliament voted today to allow an international peacekeeper mission to enter the country.

International monitors observed the “movement of a large amount of heavy weapons” in areas controlled by pro-Russian rebels before and during the fighting in Maryinka, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a report on its website. The OSCE said it observed armored vehicles, including tanks, moving west from the rebel area on the night of June 2. Its personnel heard about 200 artillery rounds fired during the battle, according to the report.

Even after the truce took effect on Feb. 15, shelling has continued daily. Insurgents attacked government positions overnight across Ukraine’s two eastern regions, the military said.

“Now, everything has returned to a level we had a day and a half ago,” Oleksandr Poronyuk, the head of the army’s press service, said by phone. “The army managed has to stabilize the situation.”