NATO and Ukrainian officials yesterday confirmed that Russian military vehicles had crossed into Ukraine on Thursday night.
The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, said most of them were quickly destroyed by his troops.
The reported Russian incursion, which Moscow denied, came amid a week of drama over a Russian humanitarian aid mission for people in eastern Ukraine caught in the crossfire of fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatists.
A statement on Mr Poroshenko’s website said he and Prime Minister David Cameron had spoken yesterday by telephone about the reports from western journalists that Russian armoured personnel carriers were seen crossing into Ukraine near the point where more than 200 vehicles in the Russian aid convoy were parked.
“The president said that the given information was trustworthy and confirmed the majority of the vehicles were destroyed by Ukrainian artillery at night,” the presidential statement said.
Mr Poroshenko gave no proof for his comments.
Russia said its forces were patrolling the border but denied that any military vehicles had crossed into Ukraine.
Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, however, confirmed that the alliance had observed a Russian “incursion” into Ukraine. “What we have seen last night is the continuation of what we have seen for some time,” he said during a visit to Copenhagen.
Britain said it summoned the Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, to clarify the reports of the Russian incursion.
Markets sold off heavily yesterday, spooked by the thought of Ukrainian troops engaging Russian forces inside Ukraine. Germany’s Dax, which had been trading more than 1 per cent higher, ended the day 1.4 per cent lower. The price of Brent crude oil was up $1.21 to $103.28 a barrel.
“Traders will be anxiously scanning their news feeds for any sign of a Russian response over the coming hours,” said Chris Beauchamp, market analyst at IG.
Breaking an earlier deal, Russia this week sent the convoy of roughly 200 aid trucks toward a border crossing under the control of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, raising the prospect that it could enter without being inspected by Ukrainian forces or the Red Cross. Kiev had agreed to admit the trucks, but only through a region untouched by separatist unrest.
After days of controversy, Russia nominally consented to let Ukrainian officials inspect the convoy while it was still on Russian soil and agreed that the Red Cross would distribute the goods in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. The twin moves apparently were meant to dispel Ukrainian fears that the operation was a ruse to get military help to the pro-Russian rebels.
Laurent Corbaz, International Committee of the Red Cross’s director of operations in Europe, described a tentative plan in which the trucks would enter Ukraine with a single Russian driver each – as opposed to the current crew of several people in each truck – accompanied by a Red Cross worker. In line with Red Cross policy, there would be no military escort, he said. However, some Russian military vehicles were seen near the aid convoy yesterday carrying a Russian acronym standing for “peacekeeping forces” – a signal that Moscow was considering a possible military escort.
The fighting in Ukraine has claimed nearly 2,100 lives. It began in April, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
Luhansk has suffered extensively from an intense military barrage over the past few weeks. It remains cut off from power and water supplies, and its mobile and landline telephone systems barely function, local authorities said yesterday.
Ukraine, meanwhile, proceeded with its own aid mission to the Luhansk area. Trucks from Kharkiv were unloaded yesterday at warehouses in Starobilsk.