Ukraine’s prime minister has claimed Russia wants to “eliminate Ukraine as an independent country” and will not stop until it has restored the “Soviet Union”.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s comments came as fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian and government forces, leading to the deaths of at least 12 people and threatening to destroy a fragile ceasefire that had brought a modicum of peace to the war-torn area.
“Putin wants to eliminate Ukraine as an independent state,” said Yatsenyuk in a speech to an international conference in Kiev. “His ultimate goal is take the whole of Ukraine. He wants to restore the Soviet Union,” he said.
Referring to the ceasefire now under threat in the east, Yatsenyuk described it as just a “stop” in the fighting.
“We are still in a state of war and the key aggressor is the Russian Federation… Putin wants another frozen conflict [in eastern Ukraine],” he said.
Yatsenyuk’s graphic assessment of Russia’s policy goals contrasted to the softer words of his president, Petro Poroshenko, a day earlier.
Poroshenko, who is also responsible for foreign policy, said Ukraine had been invaded but made no comment on Russia’s ambitions, saying that he was confident negotiations would bring an end to the war, while calling for Russia to behave “responsibly”.
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia were further tightened yesterday when a convoy of around 200 lorries crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border on an apparent “aid” mission to Ukrainian territories controlled by pro-Russian forces.
The convoy was not inspected by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) or Ukrainian officials, and fears rose that despite Moscow’s insistence it is carrying “humanitarian” supplies such as food and water it was in fact delivering military equipment.
A similar convoy last month raised similar suspicions and fuelled accusations that Russian forces are operating in eastern Ukraine, and that their presence and equipment have not only sustained the violence but also put the Ukrainian army on the defensive.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s armed forces said they had repelled a rebel attack on a government-held airport in the city of Donetsk yesterday, and heavy artillery fire was reported to have come from rebel positions.
The military threat to Ukrainian security posed by Russia and its armed forces prompted Yatsenyuk to call for Nato membership.
“Under these specific circumstances, Nato is the only possibility to protect Ukraine,” said the prime minister.
“As the Holy Bible says, if you knock on the door, the door will open. So we decided to knock.”
Yatsenyuk conceded, however, that Nato was not prepared to accept his country into the alliance organisation at the moment.
Any talk of Ukraine joining Nato would meet furious opposition from Russia, which wants Ukraine to remain neutral no matter what Kiev or the Ukrainian people desire.
Yatsenyuk – who became recognisable as the head of the interim government as Kiev began battling pro-Russian rebels earlier this year – also said that Ukraine lacked the strength to negotiate bilateral agreements with Russia and therefore required the support of the EU and the United States in its dealings with its huge neighbour.
Some in Ukraine have argued that Yatsenyuk’s fiery rhetoric may be linked to the forthcoming general election in the country.
His People’s Front party is expected to perform well in the vital poll to be held on 26 October, which is the first parliamentary election since the Maidan protests in Kiev, and is expected to be one of the most significant elections in Ukraine’s post-independence history.