Shelling in breakaway regions stokes Russia-Ukraine tensions

Kyiv and Moscow blamed each other for clashes in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region on Thursday, as western officials continue to question Russia’s claim it has withdrawn troops from close to the country’s border.

The Ukrainian army said “Russian occupation forces” controlling breakaway far eastern regions of Ukraine had “with special cynicism” shelled a kindergarten in a village in the Luhansk region, injuring two civilians. It later said shelling was occurring in more than 20 separate locations as unconfirmed videos containing the sound of live fire appeared on social media.

Russia, which backs separatists in the Donbas but denies – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that it is a party to the conflict, blamed Ukraine for the escalation. Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said the shelling “was a subject of very, very deep concern”.

“We have warned many times that Ukraine’s excessive concentration of its armed forces next to the line of contact, along with the possibility of provocations, could be highly dangerous. And now we can see these provocations are happening, ”Peskov told reporters.

The flare-up was the latest in a smouldering conflict that has claimed about 14,000 lives in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk since erupting in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

A statement posted on the Donetsk-based Russian-backed separatists website stated: “The situation on the contact line has escalated significantly over the past few hours.”

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky posted in a tweet that he had described the flare-up in the Luhansk region as “provocative shelling” during a phone call with Charles Michel, president of the European Council.

Speaking after Nato ministerial meetings in Brussels, US defense secretary Lloyd Austin described the reports of shelling as “troubling”, observing that the US had for some time stated that Putin might do something like this as a pretext for a military conflict. “We will be watching this very closely.”

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was concerned that Russia was seeking to stage a pretext for an armed attack on Ukraine, as he reiterated that there were no signs of withdrawal or de-escalation by Moscow.

“They have enough troops and enough capabilities to launch a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine with very little or no warning – that is what makes the situation so dangerous,” Stoltenberg told reporters.

“We have not seen any evidence from our sensors that support the idea of ​​shelling in the Donbas,” a western official said on Thursday. “There have been routine exchanges across the line for years, but I’ve seen no evidence of a spike in action.”

“This is the sort of provocation that has the potential to escalate. . . It could be accidental but equally there could be a planned escalation by Russia to provide false justification for military action. This sort of pretext, if it is built on in coming days, could be used as a justification for invasion. ”

The increased fighting in Donbas comes as the US, UK and Nato continued to rebut Russia’s claims this week that it was pulling back some of its forces from the border with Ukraine and in Crimea as well as Donbas.

In a tweetLinda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN, said she had asked US secretary of state Antony Blinken to speak at a UN Security Council session on Thursday.

“Our goal is to convey the gravity of the situation. The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving towards an imminent invasion. This is a crucial moment, ”said Thomas-Greenfield.

She added that Blinken also wanted to signal Washington’s “intense commitment to diplomacy, to offer and emphasize the path towards de-escalation, and to make it clear to the world that we are doing everything we can to prevent war”.

The White House late on Wednesday called the Kremlin’s claims that it was withdrawing forces from the Ukrainian border “false” and accused Russia of increasing its troop presence in the region by about 7,000 in recent days.

Jim Hockenhull, the UK’s defense intelligence chief, said Britain had sightings of “additional [Russian] armored vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving towards Ukraine’s borders ”.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said the west was fanning “hysteria” by accusing Moscow of not withdrawing its troops. “This is where the escalation is, in [how] they are constantly filling people’s minds with these threats and scare stories, ”Lavrov said after meeting his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio, according to Interfax.

Thursday’s flare-up has added to the belief that Putin, who has massed more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine and warned this week that Kyiv was conducting a “genocide” in the Donbas, could use any escalation as a pretext to invade. The US and UK have repeatedly warned that Moscow could orchestrate a “false-flag” operation to justify a deeper incursion.

“Russia’s claim of genocide in Ukraine is a reprehensible falsehood,” the US mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe wrote on Twitter.

The OSCE’s special monitoring mission in Ukraine “has complete access to the government controlled areas of Ukraine and has never reported anything remotely resembling Russia’s claims”, the mission added.

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