THE Ukrainian government has claimed that Russia has started a “military invasion” and that columns of tanks have crossed the border in a major escalation of the civil war.
President Petro Poroshenko cancelled a visit to Turkey yesterday as rebel and Russian forces apparently pushed on with an offensive in the south of Ukraine that now threatens the key port of Novoazovsk.
President Poroshenko said in a statement: “I have made a decision to cancel my working visit to the Republic of Turkey due to the sharp aggravation of the situation in Donetsk region, as Russian troops were actually brought into Ukraine.”
His accusations come just a day after he met Russian president Vladimir Putin at a summit in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, the Ukrainian ambassador to the EU, said: “As of yesterday, Russia has started an uncovered military invasion of Ukraine. Our sincere attempt to offer a hand of peace to Russia in Minsk got a cynical silly smile in response.”
Kiev said that two armoured columns of tanks, backed by heavy artillery, had crossed the south-eastern border, while Dutch brigadier-general Nico Tak, head of Nato’s crisis management centre, said that Russia now had more than 1,000 soldiers in Ukraine.
He said: “Over the past two weeks, we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia’s military interference in Ukraine. We assess well over 1,000 Russian troops are now operating inside Ukraine. They are supporting separatists and fighting with them.”
One satellite picture released by Nato, taken on 21 August, showed Russian military units moving in convoy with self-propelled artillery in the area of Krasnodon, Ukraine, inside territory controlled by Russian separatists.
A second image, taken on 23 August showed Russian self-propelled artillery units set up in firing positions near Krasnodon, supported by a number of vehicles which are likely to have been carrying extra ammunition and supplies.
“This is highly sophisticated equipment which requires a well-trained crew. It takes months to train crews like that. It’s extremely unlikely these sorts of units are manned by separatists,” Brig Gen Tak said.
Faced with perhaps Europe’s biggest crisis since the end of the Cold War, the UN Security Council was holding an emergency session last night to address the situation in Ukraine and ask Russia why its “regular troops” are there.
The UK ambassador to the United Nations, Mark Lyall Grant, said ahead of the meeting: “Russia will be asked to explain why Russia has its troops inside Ukraine. It’s very clear that Russian regular troops are now in Ukraine.”
The West has already imposed sanctions on Russia over its Ukraine policy and David Cameron warned of “further consequences”.
He said: “It is simply not enough to engage in talks in Minsk, while Russian tanks continue to roll over the border into Ukraine. Such activity must cease immediately.
“We urge Russia to pursue a different path and to find a political solution to this crisis. If Russia does not, then she should be in no doubt that there will be further consequences.”
Moscow has continued to deny that any of its forces are participating in the Ukraine conflict – but these denials appear to be losing credibility as apparent evidence mounts of Russian army involvement.
A rebel leader has admitted that thousands of Russian troops are serving with separatist forces, although he added that they were “on leave” and were not in Ukraine in any official capacity.
Two members of Mr Putin’s human rights council have also said that 100 Russian soldiers were killed on 13 August in a battle in eastern Ukraine.
Some wives and mothers of Russian military personnel serving in undisclosed locations have started to demand to know where their loved ones actually are, amid a flurry of rumours of secret military funerals and army hospitals overwhelmed with wounded.
If Russia has committed regular forces, it is possible that Mr Putin is attempting to use them to forestall a Ukrainian military victory and to force Kiev to negotiate with the rebels in order to broker a peace agreement that would suit Moscow’s interests.