Friday, 29 August 2014
DONETSK, Ukraine -- Determined to preserve the pro-Russian revolt in eastern Ukraine, Russia reinforced what Western and Ukrainian officials described as a stealth invasion on Wednesday, sending armored troops across the border as it expanded the conflict to a new section of Ukrainian territory. The latest incursion, which Ukraine’s military said included five armored personnel carriers, was at least the third movement of troops and weapons from Russia across the southeast part of the border this week, further blunting the momentum Ukrainian forces have made in weakening the insurgents in their redoubts of Donetsk and Luhansk farther north. Evidence of a possible turn was seen in the panicky retreat of Ukrainian soldiers on Tuesday from a force they said had come over the Russian border. Russia, which has denied it is helping the insurgents, did not acknowledge the military movements. But the Russians have signaled that they would not countenance a defeat of an insurgency in the heavily Russian eastern part of Ukraine, which would amount to a significant domestic political setback for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in his increasingly fractious relationship with the United States and its European allies. “Russia is clearly trying to put its finger on the scale to tip things back in favor of its proxies,” a senior American official said. “Artillery barrages and other Russian military actions have taken their toll on the Ukrainian military.” The Russian military movements carried the potential to poison any hope that a halt to the five-month-old conflict was any closer, one day after the presidents of both countries, at a summit meeting in Belarus, outwardly professed their desire for a solution. Russia’s behavior also raised the possibility of punitive new Western economic sanctions as a reprisal step. Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military in Kiev, said the Russian armored column entered the town of Amvrosiyivka, south of Donetsk, expanding what Western and Ukrainian officials have described as one of the main fronts in a multipronged, Russia-directed counteroffensive. This week, Ukraine accused Russia of sending an armored column toward the coastal city of Mariupol, far from the fighting around Luhansk and Donetsk, with the aim of diverting Ukrainian forces to deal with that new threat. The Obama administration accused Russia of lying about its intentions, while European officials angrily demanded answers from the Kremlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who perhaps has the most cordial relationship with Putin, telephoned him on Wednesday to request an explanation, her office said. Evidence that Russia was seeking to change the course of the conflict was abundant this week in the small southeast border town of Novoazovsk, where Ukrainian forces beat a nervous retreat on Tuesday, under attack from what fleeing soldiers described as columns of tanks, artillery and combat troops coming across the border. Exhausted, filthy and dismayed, some Ukrainian soldiers staggering out of Novoazovsk for safer territory said they were cannon fodder for the attacking forces. As they spoke, tank shells whistled in from the east and exploded nearby. Some of the Ukrainian soldiers appeared unwilling to fight. The commander of their unit, part of the Ninth Brigade from Vinnytsia, in western Ukraine, barked at the men to turn around, to no effect. “All right,” the commander said. “Anybody who refuses to fight, sit apart from the others.” Eleven men did, while the others returned to the city. Some troops were in full retreat. A city-busload of them careened past on the highway headed west, as purple curtains flapped through windows shot out by gunfire. More fighting and shelling punctuated the area around the town on Wednesday, although it was unclear whether the assailants were Russian forces or members of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the name the separatists have given themselves. The Obama administration, which has imposed increasingly punitive economic sanctions on Russia because of the Ukraine crisis, has asserted over the past week that the Russians had moved artillery, air-defense systems and armor to help the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. “These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said Wednesday. At the department’s daily briefing in Washington, Ms. Psaki also criticized what she called the Russian government’s “unwillingness to tell the truth” that its military had sent soldiers as deep as 30 miles inside Ukraine territory. Ms. Psaki apparently was referring to videos of captured Russian soldiers, distributed by the Ukrainian government on Tuesday, that directly challenged Putin’s assertions that Russia is a mere bystander in the conflict. The videos were publicized just as Putin was meeting with his Ukraine counterpart, Petro O. Poroshenko, in Belarus. Russian forces have been trying to help the separatists break the siege of Luhansk and have been fighting to open a corridor to Donetsk from the Russian border, Western officials say. To the south, Russia has been backing a separatist push toward Mariupol, a major port on the Sea of Azov, according to Western and Ukrainian officials. The Russian aim, one Western official said, may possibly be to seize an outlet to the sea in the event that Russia tries to establish a separatist enclave in eastern Ukraine. Some Western officials fear the move might even be a step in what they suspect is a broader Russian strategy to carve out a land link to Crimea, the strategic Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in March, setting off Moscow’s worst crisis with the West since the Cold War. The Russian military’s use of artillery from within Ukraine is of special concern to Western military officials, who say Russian artillery has already been used to shell Ukrainian forces near Luhansk. And along with the antiaircraft systems operated by separatists or Russian forces inside Ukraine, the artillery has the potential to alter the balance of power in the struggle for control of eastern Ukraine. The separatists have asserted that they are using captured Ukrainian equipment. But American officials say they are confident that the artillery in the Krasnodon area of Ukraine is Russia’s since Ukrainian forces have not penetrated that deeply into that separatist-controlled region. American officials also say the separatists have no experience in using such weaponry. The United States has photographs that show the Russian artillery moved into Ukraine, American officials say. One photo dated Aug. 21, shown to a New York Times reporter, shows Russian military units moving self-propelled artillery into Ukraine. Another photo, dated Saturday, shows the artillery in firing positions in Ukraine. Advanced air defenses, including systems not known to be in the Ukrainian arsenal, have also been used to blunt the Ukrainian military’s air power, American officials say. In addition, they said, the Russian military routinely flies drones over Ukraine and shares the intelligence with the separatists. In Novoazovsk, at least, there was no doubt among the retreating Ukrainians that their assailants were coming from Russia. On the highway in Novoazovsk on Tuesday, Sgt. Ihor Sharapov, a soldier with the Ukrainian border patrol unit, said he had seen tanks drive across the border, although they were marked with flags of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Others suggested the flags were a ruse. “I tell you they are Russians, but this is what proof I have,” said Sgt. Aleksei Panko, holding up his thumb and index finger to form a zero. Sergeant Panko estimated that about 60 armored vehicles crossed near Novoazovsk. “This is what happened: They crossed the border, took up positions and started shooting.” The Ukrainian Vinnytsia brigade met the cross-border advance over the six miles of countryside separating Novoazovsk from the Russian border, but later retreated to the western edge of town along the Rostov-Mariupol highway, where soldiers were collapsed in exhaustion on the roadside. “This is now a war with Russia,” Sergeant Panko said. The counteroffensive that Ukrainian officers said was at least in part staged across the border from Russia pushed the Ukrainian Army off a 75-mile-long highway from Donetsk south to the Azov Sea. On Wednesday, it amounted to a no-man’s land of empty villages, roads crisscrossed by armored vehicle treads, felled trees and grass fires burning out of control, and panoramas of sunflowers and corn rotting.
MOSCOW, Russia -- Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of invading the country Thursday, apparently dashing hopes of a diplomatic response to the crisis and challenging the West to respond. Kiev said Russian forces have seized the coastal town of Novoazovsk and several villages near the border with Russia, part of a wider assault on a new front. Mr. Poroshenko called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council and the European Council to respond to what said was "the introduction of Russian forces into Ukraine." He canceled a planned trip to Turkey and set an emergency meeting with his security chiefs for later in the day. "The world needs to pay attention to the sharply worsening situation in Ukraine," he said in a televised statement from Kiev. Russia's ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Andrey Kelin, denied the accusation. The Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed claims its forces are fighting in Ukraine. Western capitals have grown increasingly alarmed. France's President François Hollande said Russia would suffer a new round of sanctions if the Kremlin failed to stop the supply of arms to pro-Russian separatists and didn't respect Ukraine's sovereignty. "Russia cannot simultaneously aspire to be a world power in the 21st century and not play by the rules," the president said in a speech to French ambassadors. Lithuania's foreign ministry called the attack an "obvious invasion of the territory of Ukraine by the armed forces of the Russian Federation." The U.S. ambassador to Kiev also issued a definitive statement Thursday that Russia was now directly involved in fighting. The ambassador, George Pyatt, tweeted that "now an increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory." He noted that "Russia has also sent its newest air defense systems including the SA-22 into eastern Ukraine and is now directly involved in the fighting." The advance comes as a leader of separatist rebels in Ukraine confirmed for the first time that Russian active duty military are fighting in Ukraine—although he insisted the fighters were in the country for short stints, while on vacation. "I'll say openly that fighting among us are active military who prefer not to spend a holiday on the beach," Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk Peoples' Republic, said in an interview on Russia television. "They are among us brothers who are fighting for their freedom." Russia has repeatedly brushed off all allegations that it is aiding separatists or sending its troops there. Most recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russian paratroopers Ukraine said crossed the border must have wandered there "by accident." After falling back before the advance in the southeast, Ukrainian troops are now digging in near the strategically important port city of Mariupol. Russia's Interfax news agency cited pro-Russian rebels as saying they will be taking the city "in the coming days." Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council said Thursday the assault on Novoazovsk on Wednesday was preceded by missile fire from across the Russian border, followed by the incursion of "two columns of Russian military equipment." The Council said "Russian forces" had taken control of Novoazovsk and surrounding villages, as well as villages further north, toward Donetsk. The Council didn't provide proof for its claim, however. NATO has a briefing scheduled for Thursday in which it is expected give fresh evidence of Russian forces directing military operations inside Ukraine. Until recently Ukrainian troops had the upper hand against rebels, pushing them back towards the Russian border and nearly surrounding strongholds in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. But in the past week Ukrainian defenses have crumbled under counter-attacks, amid reports that Russia was rushing troops and armor into the country into rebel-held areas. Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called on Western countries to take harsher economic steps against Russia to help Ukraine fight off "Russian aggression." He said that sanctions taken up by the U.S. and the European Union have not been sufficient, and called on them and G-7 nations to "freeze all the Russian assets and to stop all the financial transactions of the Russian Federation… until Russia pulls out its military forces, armory and agents" from Ukraine. Anton Herashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine's defense minister wrote on his Facebook page that "to stop Putin, EU countries, and first and foremost Germany, must make a decision to give up buying oil, gas, timber and other natural resources from Russia," he wrote. "Stop issuing any kinds of loans or better freeze the assets of Russian state companies as sponsors of terrorism." "This will immediately put Putin on the brink of economic abyss which will sooner or later be followed by a political abyss," he added.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- A separatist leader in Eastern Ukraine has a secret he’d like to share. There are Russian troops inside Ukraine fighting alongside the rebels and against Ukrainian troops. But wait. They’re really just freelancing while on vacation, according to his comment in a Reuters report. “Among us are fighting serving [Russian] soldiers, who would rather take their vacation not on a beach but with us, among brothers, who are fighting for their freedom,” Alexander Zakharchenko said in a reported interview with a Russian state television station. Except for the Russian government itself, who continues to make up outrageous lies, they’re not even pretending anymore. Though don’t tell the Russians that. Just this week, after being confronted with video evidence that appeared to contradict their story, they maintained the charade. Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, agreed this morning that Russian troops have now entered the fight. “Russian supplied tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and multiple rocket launchers have been insufficient to defeat Ukraine’s armed forces,” he wrote. “So now an increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory. Russia has also sent its newest air defense systems including the SA-22 into eastern Ukraine and is now directly involved in the fighting.” This comes after Tuesday’s news that ten Russian paratroopers were caught in Ukraine. The soldiers quickly conceded in a video that a) they were Russian, and b) they had been ordered to cross the border. The Russian Defense Ministry, for its part, said they’d wandered across the border 'accidentally'. “The soldiers really did participate in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossed it by accident on an unmarked section, and as far as we understand showed no resistance to the armed forces of Ukraine when they were detained,” the Guardian quoted one Russian defense ministry source saying. This of course wasn’t the first time Russia has walked back or denied something that directly challenged the veracity of their purported non-involvement. After the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down, with a weapon that was Russian-made, U.S. officials accused Russia of shooting artillery across the border and into Ukraine, Reuters reported. “We have new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to separatist forces in Ukraine, and have evidence that Russia is firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainian military positions,” State Department spokesman Marie Harf said. What evidence? Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted out several satellite images showing the artillery strikes. Then NATO said it spotted Russia sending an “incursion” into Ukraine. “Last night we saw a Russian incursion, a crossing of the Ukrainian border,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, according to Reuters. “It just confirms the fact that we see a continuous flow of weapons and fighters from Russia into eastern Ukraine and it is a clear demonstration of continued Russian involvement.” Russia’s response to such accusations: denial. “We no longer pay attention to the allegations made by Mr. Rasmussen and his press secretary,” a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said. “There is no sense to comment on them.” But as the fighting threatens to balloon into a full-blown war between Ukraine and Russia, it may become more difficult to maintain the rhetorical sleight of hand. On Thursday morning, Reuters’ Richard Balmforth was suspicious after separatist forces reportedly took more strategic ground near the rebel-held city of Donetsk. “The sudden reverses for the Ukrainian military appeared to confirm the arrival of Russian forces to support the separatists,” he wrote, quoting a local soldier fighting for the Ukrainian government. “There is military equipment … which came across the border two days ago from Russia,” he said. “The equipment is carrying the flags of the [Donetsk People's Republic], but they are regular Russian forces.”
UNITED NATIONS, USA -- The United States told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that Russia has "outright lied" over its military activity inside Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian armed forces. he accusation came hours before President Obama said the United States "is not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem" but trying to mobilize international pressure on Moscow. "Russian soldiers, tanks and air defense have supported and fight alongside separatists as they open a new front in a crisis manufactured and fueled by Russia," Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the council. She noted that it was not the first time Russia has been called by the council to account for its activities inside Ukraine. "At every step, Russia has come before this council to say everything but the truth," Power said. "It has manipulated, obfuscated and outright lied." In response, the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said, "Everyone knows there are Russian volunteers in eastern Ukraine. No one is hiding it." He said the conflict was Ukraine's fault, calling it the "direct consequence of the reckless policy of Kiev, which is conducting a war against its own people." Rather than blame Russia, he said, the United States should "restrain your geopolitical ambitions. Countries around the world would breathe a sigh of relief." The Ukrainian envoy, Oleksandr Pavlichenko, accused Russia of intentionally undermining peace efforts. Churkin asked if Kiev's demand for separatists to disarm was an attempt to provoke more violence. Pavlichenko replied that Kiev is "ready to engage on a whole range of issues" and the only non-negotiable issues are Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and its "European aspirations." At the White House, Obama ruled out a U.S. military response. "It is not in the cards for us to see a military confrontation between Russia and the United States in this region," he said during a 30-minute news conference. He said he did not see the moves of the past week as an invasion but "a continuation of what's been taking place for months now ... not really a shift." "This is not a homegrown, indigenous uprising in eastern Ukraine," he said. "The separatists are backed, trained, armed, financed by Russia. ... We've seen deep Russian involvement in everything they've done." He echoed Ukrainian claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully. "We have not seen any meaningful action on the part of Russia to actually try to resolve this in a diplomatic fashion," Obama said. He spoke earlier in the day with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the Russian incursion, and both agreed the United States and European Union would have to consider expanding sanctions on Moscow, the White House said in a statement. The U.N. Security Council convened the emergency meeting hours after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who will meet with Obama at the White House next month, declared that "Russian forces have entered Ukraine" in support of separatist rebels. The meeting, called by Lithuania, followed charges Thursday by NATO officials of a significant increase of Russian military activity — including evidence of combat soldiers — in eastern Ukraine. Russia has strongly denied such allegations. "Russia has to stop lying and has to stop fueling this conflict," Power said. "The mask is coming off. In these recent acts, we see Russia's actions for what they are — a deliberate effort to support and now fight alongside illegal separatists in another sovereign country." Power said Russia's actions in the past 48 hours "have spoken volumes," and she called on the Security Council to take immediate action. "How can we tell those countries that border Russia that their peace and sovereignty is guaranteed if we do not make our message heard on Ukraine?" she asked the council. "The cost of inaction is unacceptable." Jeffrey Feltman, U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, opened the Security Council meeting by saying its immediate focus "must be to find ways to reverse the dangerous escalation of fighting that has occurred over the past 24 hours and move quickly away from armed conflict and toward political solutions and dialogue." Ukraine has charged that at least two convoys of Russian military equipment entered southeastern Ukraine this week to open up a third front in the fighting between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern regions. More than 2,000 people have died in clashes in eastern Ukraine, according to a recent U.N. report. Russian-backed rebels have declared two regions as independent republics and the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk have been largely surrounded by Ukrainian forces. Poroshenko, who discussed the crisis with Putin two days ago, called for U.N. action in a televised statement to the nation, saying, "The world must provide assessment of sharp aggravation of the situation in Ukraine." "Russian military boots are on Russian ground," said Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk., who also appealed to the United Nations for a response to a "growing military threat from Russia." In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron said there is "mounting evidence that Russian troops have made large-scale incursions" into southeastern Ukraine. Such actions are "completely unacceptable and illegal," he said, urging Russia to find a political solution to the crisis, or "there will be further consequences." In Brussels, Brig. Gen. Nico Tak said at NATO headquarters Thursday that the alliance noted a "significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia's military interference in Ukraine" in the past two weeks. "Russia is reinforcing and resupplying separatist forces in a blatant attempt to change the momentum of the fighting, which is currently favoring the Ukrainian military," Tak said. NATO produced satellite images as "additional evidence that Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, are operating inside Ukraine's sovereign territory." Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, wrote on Twitter that Russian troops are directly intervening in Ukraine because of a flagging military effort by rebels. "Russian-supplied tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and multiple rocket launchers have been insufficient to defeat Ukraine' armed forces," Pyatt wrote. "So now an increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory. " As charges of a Russian incursion mounted, Andrey Kelin, Russia's representative to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has an international monitoring group in Ukraine, denied the allegations. "We have said that no Russian involvement has been spotted, there are no soldiers or equipment," he said, the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass reported. "Accusations relating to convoys of armored personnel carriers have been heard during the past week and the week before that," he said. "All of them were proven false back then and are being proven false again now." Ukraine said this week that it had captured 10 Russian paratroopers who had crossed into Ukraine and showed video of some of the men being interviewed. Putin suggested the soldiers crossed the unmarked border by accident while on training exercises. After his meeting with Poroshenko in Belarus, Putin said a possible cease-fire plan did not come up. He said a solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine is "not our business; it is a domestic matter for Ukraine itself." He said all Russia could do was "support the creation of an environment of trust." A pro-Russian leader conceded that as many as 4,000 Russian citizens are fighting alongside the rebels but are doing so strictly voluntarily. "Many former high-ranking military officers have volunteered to join us. They are fighting with us, considering that to be their duty," Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic in Ukraine, told Russian TV, the BBC reports. "There are also many in the current Russian military that prefer to spend their leave among us, brothers who are fighting for their freedom, rather than on a beach," Zakharchenko said. In Mariupol, a city of 450,000, a brigade of Ukrainian forces arrived at the airport, while deep trenches were dug a day earlier on the city's edge. In Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city, 11 people were killed by shelling during the night, the city administration said in a statement. "These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway in Donetsk and Luhansk," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. She voiced concern about overnight deliveries of materiel in southeast Ukraine near Novoazovsk and said Russia was being dishonest about its actions, even to its own people. Russian forces, she said, are being sent 30 miles inside Ukraine, without them or their families knowing where they are going. She cited reports of burials in Russia for those who've died in Ukraine and wounded Russian soldiers being treated in a St. Petersburg hospital.
Sunday, 24 August 2014
KIEV, Ukraine -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday the standoff over Ukraine could be solved but only if control was tightened over the Ukraine-Russia border across which, the West alleges, Russia has been funnelling arms to help a separatist rebellion. Merkel was visiting Kiev as a prelude to a meeting next week between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders that diplomats say is the best chance in months of a peace deal in eastern Ukraine, where government forces are fighting pro-Moscow rebels. But she arrived as tensions flared up again. NATO has alleged Russia's military is active inside Ukraine helping the rebels, and Moscow angered Kiev and its Western allies by sending an aid convoy into Ukraine against Kiev's wishes. "There must be two sides to be successful. You cannot achieve peace on your own. I hope the talks with Russia will lead to success," said Merkel, looking ahead to a meeting on Tuesday involving Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko. "The plans are on the table...now actions must follow," the German leader told a news conference after talks with Poroshenko in the Ukrainian capital. She said a ceasefire was needed, but the main obstacle was the lack of controls along the nearly 2,000 km (1,300 mile) border. She proposed an agreement between Kiev and Moscow on monitoring of the frontier by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Poroshenko suggested he saw scope for accord. “The Ukrainian side and our European partners will do everything possible to bring about peace - but not at the price of sovereignty, territorial integrity and the independence of Ukraine," he said. Hours before her plane landed in Kiev, there was heavy artillery bombardment in Donetsk, the main separatist stronghold on the east of Ukraine, near the border with Russia. Reporters saw apartments destroyed and puddles of blood, where, according to residents, two civilians were killed. The unusually intense shelling may be part of a drive by government forces to achieve a breakthrough against the rebels in time for Ukrainian Independence Day, which falls on Sunday. Diplomats say Merkel has two aims for the visit: primarily to show support for Kiev in its stand-off with Russia, but also to urge Poroshenko to be open to peace proposals when he meets Putin next week. TRUCK CONVOY The conflict in Ukraine has dragged Russian-Western relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War and sparked a round of trade sanctions that are hurting already-fragile economies in European and Russia. A convoy of about 220 white-painted trucks rolled into Ukraine on Friday through a border crossing controlled by the rebels after days waiting for clearance. Moscow said the trucks moved in without Kiev's consent because civilians in areas under siege from Ukrainian government troops were in urgent need of food, water and other supplies. Kiev called the convoy a direct invasion, a stance echoed by NATO, the United States, and European leaders. A journalist at the Donetsk-Izvaryne border crossing, where the convoy rolled into Ukraine on Friday, said trucks on Saturday had started pouring back onto the Russian side of the border. The foreign ministry in Moscow said the convoy had now left Ukraine, though a Ukrainian military spokesman disputed this, saying only 184 of the 220 vehicles had re-entered Russia. In Brussels, NATO said it had reports of Russian troops engaging Kiev's forces inside Ukraine - fuelling Western allegations that the Kremlin is behind the conflict in an effort undermine the Western-leaning leadership in Kiev. "Russian artillery support – both cross border and from within Ukraine – is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces," said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. A Ukrainian military spokesman in Kiev, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, said Ukrainian government forces were now coming under cross-border fire from Russia, using Grad and Uragan missiles, over a 400 kms (250 mile) length of the border. The Russian foreign ministry, in a statement, called those allegations "groundless." Russia accuses Kiev, with the backing of the West, of waging a war against innocent civilians in eastern Ukraine, a mainly Russian-speaking region. HOMES DESTROYED The crisis over Ukraine started when mass protests in Kiev ousted a president who was close to Moscow, and installed leaders viewed with suspicion by the Kremlin. Soon after that, Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, and a separatist rebellion broke out in eastern Ukraine. In the past weeks, the momentum has shifted towards Ukraine's forces, who have been pushing back the rebels. The separatists are now encircled in their two strongholds, Luhansk and Donetsk. Reporters in Donetsk said that most of the shelling was taking place in the outskirts, but explosions were also audible in the centre of the city. In Donetsk's Leninsky district, a man who gave his name as Grigory, said he was in the toilet on Saturday morning when he heard the whistling sound of incoming artillery. "Then it hit. I came out and half the building was gone." The roof of the building had collapsed into a heap of debris. Grigory said his 27-year-old daughter was taken to hospital with injuries to her head. He picked up a picture of a baby from the rubble. "This is my grandson," he said. In another residential area, about 5 km north of the city centre, a shop and several houses had been hit. Residents said two men, civilians, were killed. Praskoviya Grigoreva, 84, pointed to two puddles of blood on the pavement near a bus stop that was destroyed in the same attack. "He's dead. Death took him on this spot," she said.
SHCHASTYA, Ukraine -- Zhanna Solohub doesn’t know if the rocket that struck the courtyard of her house this month was fired by pro-Russian rebels or Ukrainian government forces. What she does know, she said, is that the biggest humanitarian gesture either side could make right now is to stop the fighting. Amid intensifying battles this past week for control of key cities in eastern Ukraine, Russia prepared to distribute food, medicine and other supplies that it delivered to rebel-held territory without Kiev’s consent. Ukraine has offered assistance of its own. But aid, some residents said this week, is not as critical as peace. “People are able to survive even without electricity and water,” Solohub said as she lay bandaged in a hospital in this government-held village eight miles from Luhansk, a Ukrainian city close to the Russian border that has seen some of the worst combat of the four-month conflict. “But you can’t prepare yourself for bombing.” Luhansk has been without electricity or water for 20 days, city officials said. But Solohub and her husband were determined to tough it out in the house they built there with their own hands. The rocket attack fractured one of Solohub’s legs and severely wounded a foot. Her husband suffered a spinal injury. The fighting is fueling a growing refugee problem as Luhansk, a city of 425,000 people before the conflict, empties out and residents of Donetsk, about 90 miles to the southwest, flee the hostilities there. The United Nations estimated that at least 190,000 residents of eastern Ukraine had fled to other parts of the country, and it reported that 197,000 had fled to Russia, based on figures provided by the Russian government. An additional 28,000 were believed to have taken refuge in other countries. More than 2,000 people have died since fighting started in April, the United Nations said. Many of the casualties have occurred in recent weeks as the Ukrainian military, pushing into dense urban centers, tried to deal a final blow to rebels who have been forced to surrender much of the territory they once held. “We were hoping it wouldn’t end this way,” said Iryna Veryhina, the pro-Kiev acting governor of the Luhansk region. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin plan to meet in Minsk, Belarus, on Tuesday, along with their French and German counterparts, in what would be their first face-to-face discussions since early June. Ahead of the meeting — which some officials in Kiev hope will be a first step toward a negotiated end to the conflict — Ukrainian forces appear to be trying to advance as far as they can to improve their bargaining position. The civilian death toll has surged in recent days, reflecting the intensified fighting. At the crumbling red-brick hospital in Shchastya, whose name means “happiness” in Ukrainian, shelling and rocket attacks in recent days have been so loud and so constant that nurses sometimes close the rickety windows to try to block out the noise. Doctors, most of whom are volunteers from elsewhere in Ukraine, said they are receiving an adequate, if not bountiful, amount of medical supplies and other aid. But they are short on equipment, their X-ray machines are rudimentary and the three operating rooms are easily overwhelmed on days such as one two weeks ago when 13 injured people came in for treatment. Even in Luhansk, doctors said, some hospitals continue to function, although the fuel for their generators is running low after almost three weeks without electricity or water from municipal utilities. Everyone is learning to live with uncertainty. “We’re within range of the rebels’ Grad systems,” said surgeon Anton Nosik, referring to Soviet-era multiple-rocket launchers that the two sides use to spray rockets onto each other’s positions. “But we’re trying not to think about that.” In a refugee transit camp in Svatove, a government-held town in the Luhansk region about 50 miles from the fighting, dozens of people fleeing the war arrive every day. Although there are peaceful swimming holes in the lazy river that passes by the tent city, the scars of war are very present. Many refugees were startled by the resemblance of the camps’ showers to rocket launchers. Fireworks for a wedding one recent evening set nerves on edge because they sounded much too much like the violence that people had just left behind. The first thing the camp offers new arrivals is a shot of cognac and a chance to talk to a counselor, camp administrator Serhey Yakukhin said. After the cognac, he said, “people sigh, and then they begin to talk.” Many in the camp said that they stayed in Luhansk as long as they could but that the shelling simply become too intense. When food supplies ran low, they mixed flour with a touch of water and baked unleavened bread, if they had a way to cook with fire. Those people willing to endure long lines and the risk of shelling can still buy certain food staples. But prices have nearly tripled for cooking oil and quintupled for cigarettes. “We already know when it’s dangerous or not. If you hear the whistle of a rocket, then you know you need to lie on the floor or go in the basement,” said Nadya Poselyeva, 52, who fled Luhansk a week ago and who was flying a tiny Ukrainian flag from the corner of her bed frame in the olive-green military tent she is sharing with 19 other refugees. All the refugees can tell of friends and family who have died or whose homes have been destroyed. One of Poselyeva’s neighbors was killed. Another neighbor’s house was destroyed by shelling. Another house went up in flames, she said. Poselyeva was a receptionist at a university dormitory until the building was taken over by rebels. She stopped work about a month ago because it was no longer safe to go out, she said. After the Ukrainian National Guard warned that it could not guarantee the safety of her house, she fled with clothes for three days, expecting to be able to return shortly. That time still has not come. “We pray every day that it will end soon,” Poselyeva said. “We're waiting to go home. We don't want to go anywhere else.”
KIEV, Ukraine -- The fighting in eastern Ukraine intensifies as pro-Russian rebels lose ground, raising fresh questions over the plans of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The war is reaching a crunch point. Pushing forward with artillery and bombing raids, Ukrainian forces are recapturing territory and closing in on rebel forces in the east. The mood in Kiev, as Olexsiy Melnyk of the Razumkov Centre sums it up, is to “go to the end”—to finish the war by force. In a purely military contest, without an influx of heavy weapons or ground troops from Russia, the anti-Kiev insurgency would lose. The human cost could be high, but it would give President Petro Poroshenko a battlefield victory without making concessions to Moscow. Discipline is breaking down in rebel ranks, as the Kremlin pulls out high-profile proxies in favour of untested and unqualified locals who have the credibility of being from eastern Ukraine but neither competence nor experience. Donetsk and Luhansk, the two rebel strongholds, are under siege. This suggests that Russia’s Vladimir Putin may face a stark choice: to offer more support to the rebels with extra weapons and covert assistance, perhaps all the way to open invasion; or to pursue a negotiated end to the fighting that sees him withdrawing support for the rebels and facing an embarrassing geopolitical loss. That leaves Kiev (and its Western backers) with a choice, too: to allow the Ukrainian army and the battalions fighting alongside it to pound the cities occupied by rebels with mortars and rockets in the hope that the insurgency will simply crumble, or to seek to end the fighting by making some sort of deal—in name or in fact—with Putin. The next few days will see a flurry of diplomacy: Germany’s Angela Merkel visit Kiev on August 23rd and Putin will meet Mr Poroshenko on the sidelines of a Eurasian Union summit in Minsk on August 26th The Americans are only sporadically engaged by the war in Ukraine, but the European Union—led by Germany—sees it as the greatest threat to security in a generation. Mrs Merkel is making her visit to support Mr Poroshenko and his government and to sound out his readiness for talks. She will press him “to make sure they don’t cross any lines that make it more difficult to take their side,” comments Constanze Stelzenmüller of the German Marshall Fund. The meeting in Minsk may produce little more than did a recent gathering of foreign ministers in Berlin, but the mere fact that the two presidents will talk face to face for the first time since June points to the scope for dialogue. In principle, both Kiev and Moscow should favour a political rather than a military end to the war. Mr Poroshenko would gain more from diplomacy than from flattening Donetsk and risking Russian intervention, and Putin would avoid the costs and risks of a military campaign. Yet there is no guarantee that the conflict will not escalate. Mr Poroshenko faces political pressure not to yield any ground, and after months with Russia acting as puppet-master and chief supplier to the rebels, distrust in Kiev is high. There is “no point in talks with Russia,” says Mr Melnyk. “It tries to play the role of mediator but in fact it’s a party to the conflict.” Even if Mr Poroshenko were ready to make diplomatic overtures, says Olexiy Haran of Kiev Mohyla University, “there is no adequate reaction from the other side.” With Mr Poroshenko and those leading the war in Kiev seeing it as a fight for Ukraine’s survival, they will press on. For all the support from the West, Ukraine knows nobody will help—it has none of the illusions of Mikheil Saakashvili before the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. “Ukrainians are fighting and dying alone,” says Mr Haran. The language of war casts those who support the rebels as terrorists or Russian mercenaries. Post-war reconciliation in Donetsk and Luhansk will thus be exceptionally difficult. In a hospital bed on the Russian side of the border, an injured 52-year-old rebel named Yuri, from the Luhansk region, says that even if Kiev considers him a terrorist, there are “millions of people like me.” Ukraine is understandably preoccupied with finishing the war as soon as possible, but that leads its politicians to cut corners. A recent package of laws allows broad state authority inside the zone of “anti-terrorist operations” in the east, with police able to detain suspects for 30 days without charge and to open fire without warning. The laws were voted into force the day they were introduced. In the Rada (parliament) “all the methods have remained the same” as under Mr Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, says Roman Kuibida of the Centre for Political and Legal Reforms; laws are “passed without discussion or opportunity for commentary.” Ukraine needs a new Rada to replace the discredited one of Yanukovych, but if election rules are not reformed voters may elect a similar body. As for Putin, he clearly prefers not to send troops in an open, frontal invasion of Ukraine if other options are available. He could have constructed earlier pretexts for invasion. On the other hand, time and again he has chosen not to draw down the war but to escalate tension, trusting the West to acclimatise itself to each small increase in Russian involvement. At this point, it is impossible to divine Putin’s strategy or his goal. Unpredictability appears to have become an end in itself, a way of shrouding a policy of improvisation in a veil of mystic omnipotence. Moscow’s humanitarian convoy is thus not a piece of a larger, thought-through play, but a gambit—a way for Putin to regain the initiative in the crisis and to shift the conversation from questions over who shot down the Malaysia Airlines jet in July to the genuinely awful humanitarian situation in the east. It also allows Putin to show his domestic audience that he is doing something for the people of eastern Ukraine without sending in tanks. For Putin, Ukraine needs to stay fractured and destabilised: just how this happens is less important. As Igor Korotchenko, editor of a defence magazine who is close to the Russian defence ministry, puts it, “Ukraine can be an enemy state, but it can’t be a strong one.”