Mixed messages from Moscow for Ukraine

Separatist fighters escort children away from the fighting in Luhansk. Picture: Getty
Separatist fighters escort children away from the fighting in Luhansk. Picture: Getty
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Russia yesterday accused the Ukrainian authorities of escalating violence against civilians in the rebel-held east of the country, even as it offered Kiev a brief respite in a dispute over billions of dollars’ worth of unpaid gas bills.

In the latest fighting, Ukrainian border guards said a pro-Russian militia had attacked one of their posts in Luhansk with automatic weapons and grenade launchers in the early hours of yesterday, triggering a battle that was still raging many hours later.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Moscow of fuelling the pro-Russian uprising that threatens to break up the former Soviet republic of 45 million people.

Russia denies orchestrating the unrest, and says Ukraine’s attempts to end it by military force are making the situation worse.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would submit a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council, calling for an immediate end to the violence and the creation of humanitarian corridors to help civilians escape the fighting.

In pointed comments aimed at newly elected Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, Mr Lavrov said that western nations had assured Russia the situation in Ukraine would improve after the 25 May election that brought him to power.

Instead of that, he said, “everything is happening in exactly the opposite way”.

“People are dying every day. Peaceful civilians are suffering more and more – the army, military aviation and heavy weapons continue to be used against them,” Mr Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

Mr Poroshenko and Ukraine’s pro-Western government have defied Moscow’s repeated calls for an end to what Kiev calls its “anti-terrorist” operation against armed separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who want to follow the example of Crimea by splitting from Ukraine and joining Russia.

On the opposite side of the continent, Mr Poroshenko and Russian president Vladimir Putin will both attend a series of events in France this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings that opened the Western front against Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

While no formal meeting between the two is scheduled, even a handshake would be significant.

Moscow refused for months to recognise the Ukrainian leadership that replaced its ally, Viktor Yanukovich, when he was toppled by protests in February.

Since Mr Yanukovich’s overthrow, Russia has demanded a sharp increase in the price Ukraine pays for gas.

Kiev says it cannot afford it and wants to pay a discounted price which it negotiated in the past.

But after Kiev paid off £470 million of its alleged £3 billion gas debt, Russian energy giant Gazprom announced a six-day extension of the deadline until 9 June.