RUSSIAN officials struck a defiant note yesterday after western leaders threatened to further punish Moscow for escalated fighting in eastern Ukraine over the weekend, arguing that the Ukrainian government is responsible for the latest increase in violence.
In televised comments after a meeting with students in St Petersburg, president Vladimir Putin said that the Ukrainian leadership was at fault for the rise in violence and accused it of using civilians as “cannon fodder” in the conflict.
“(Ukraine’s army) is not even an army, it’s a foreign legion, in this case a foreign Nato legion,” Mr Putin said. “They have totally different goals, connected to the geopolitical containment of Russia, which absolutely do not coincide with the national interests of the Ukrainian people.”
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed the claim and accused Russia of sending large numbers of heavy weapons to the rebels. “We have seen a substantial increase in the flow of equipment from Russia to the separatists in Ukraine,” he said.
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The confrontational rhetoric came in the wake of Western threats that Russia would face further sanctions for its actions in east Ukraine, where 30 people were killed by rocket fire in the coastal city of Mariupol on Saturday. There was no fighting in Mariupol yesterday but Donetsk, the main rebel stronghold, was wracked by artillery explosions throughout the day.
Mr Putin’s stance was echoed by foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who said the tragedy was being manipulated to “whip up anti-Russian hysteria” in the West. Mr Lavrov said the rebel offensive came in response to continuous shelling of residential areas by Ukrainian troops.
“To expect that they [the rebels] would simply reconcile themselves to being bombed would be naive,” he said. “They started to act… with the goal of destroying Ukrainian army positions being used to shell populated areas.”
The Russian currency weakened on news of possible sanctions early yesterday, tumbling by more than 3 per cent. Russia’s economy has been hit hard by existing western sanctions and plummeting oil prices, and the ruble has already lost about half its value in the past year.
Meanwhile, almost 500 coal miners were trapped for a while yesterday in separatist-controlled Donetsk in Ukraine, after shelling knocked out a power station. A Donetsk city official said later that all the miners had been removed without injury.
At about midday local time artillery fire damaged the Kievsky district power station, leaving 496 men stranded underground in the Zasyadko mine, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
A Zasyadko miner who recently joined the pro-Russia separatists blamed Ukrainian forces outside the city for the artillery strike. He said: “They’re still shelling at this very moment. They don’t make war on the rebels, but rather on civilians.”