Russia’s president has called on pro-Russian separatists fighting government troops in eastern Ukraine to release Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by rebels.
Vladimir Putin’s statement came several hours after Ukraine accused Russia of entering its territory with tanks, artillery and troops, and Western powers lashed out at Moscow for lying about its role and dangerously escalating the conflict.
Nato said at least 1,000 Russian troops are in Ukraine and later released what it said were satellite photos of Russian self-propelled artillery units moving last week
“I’m calling on insurgents to open a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian troops who were surrounded in order to avoid senseless deaths,” Mr Putin said. He did not address the claims about Russia’s military presence in Ukraine.
The statement could be referring to Ukrainian troops who have been trapped outside the strategic town of Ilovaysk, east of Donetsk, for nearly a week. Protesters rallied outside the Ukrainian General Staff yesterday, demanding reinforcements and heavy weaponry for the troops, most of whom are volunteers.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied arming and supporting the separatists who have been fighting Ukrainian troops for four months in the gravest crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
Two columns of tanks and other equipment entered south-eastern Ukraine yesterday, following heavy shelling of the area from Russia that forced overmatched Ukrainian border guards to flee, said Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s national security council.
“Russian forces have entered Ukraine,” President Petro Poroshenko said in Kiev. He urged Ukrainians to remain calm, telling his country’s national security council: “Destabilisation of the situation and panic, this is as much of a weapon of the enemy as tanks.”
US president Barack Obama spoke to German chancellor Angela Merkel and both leaders agreed Russia must face consequences for its actions.
“We agree – if there was ever any doubt – that Russia is responsible for the violence in eastern Ukraine,” Mr Obama said. “The violence is encouraged by Russia. The separatists are trained by Russia, they are armed by Russia, they are funded by Russia.”
He added that Russia “has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the new images of Russian forces inside Ukraine make that plain for the world to see”.
But Mr Obama ruled out a military confrontation between the US and Russia. He said Russia’s activity in Ukraine would incur “more costs and consequences”, though these seemed to be limited to economic pressure that will be discussed when Mr Obama meets European leaders at a Nato summit in Wales next week.
At an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council last night, Western representatives expressed outrage.
Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin offered a spirited defence, saying Kiev “is waging war against its own people”. He did not deny the Russian presence, saying “there are Russian volunteers in eastern parts of Ukraine. No one is hiding that”.
He questioned the presence of Western advisers and asked where Ukrainian troops were getting weapons. He said he wanted to “send a message to Washington: Stop interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states”.
Mr Putin lauded the pro-Russian separatists, whom he described as “insurgents”, for “undermining Kiev’s military operation which threatened lives of the residents of Donbass and has already led to a colossal death toll among civilians”.
A top rebel leader in their stronghold of Donetsk promptly reacted to his appeal but said the Ukrainian troops would have to lay down the arms before they were allowed to go.
Alexander Zakharchenko said on Russia’s state Rossiya 24 television: “With all our respect to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the president of a country which gives us moral support, we are ready to open humanitarian corridors to the Ukrainian troops who were surrounded with the condition that they surrender heavy weaponry and ammunition so that this weaponry and ammunition will not be used against us in future.”