Tag Archives: Alexander Zakharchenko

Putin is playing out his childhood nightmare

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The Russian president is stepping up both the war in Ukraine and his confrontational rhetoric against NATO and the West

In a book of interviews published when he first became Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin told a story of his early scares: a rat he had cornered had nowhere to go and jumped out at him. Having pushed himself into a corner, Mr Putin is now playing out his childhood nightmare.

After several months of relative quiet in Ukraine and at home, he has raised the stakes. In Ukraine, he has shattered a fragile ceasefire, along with last September’s Minsk peace deal. The rebels are advancing and Mr Putin has called the Ukrainian Army a NATO foreign legion.

At the same time, he is building up his defences at home by mobilising paramilitary brigades to fight potential Maidan-style protests. The latest violence in Ukraine is, in many ways, a sign of Mr Putin’s desperation.

Five months ago, Russian troops moved in to stop the Ukrainian army clearing out rebels in the Donbas region. Ukraine’s defeat soon become apparent. Its trade agreement with the European Union was put on ice and the Ukrainian parliament passed a law granting broad autonomy to the parts of the Donbas controlled by the separatists.

Talk of Ukraine joining NATO stopped. America was cut out of discussions between Russia, Ukraine and Europe. Mr Putin’s goal of creating a separatist zone within Ukraine seemed within reach.

Ukraine SeparatistUkrainian separatist mans a position in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Yet hybrid wars can breed hybrid results. Since Russia never admitted to its military involvement, it could not claim victory and impose its will by keeping soldiers on the ground. Once its troops withdrew from eastern Ukraine, Mr Putin’s victory started to look shaky.

The rebels refused to lay down their arms, and Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, would not admit defeat. Ukraine has not, so far, recognised Donetsk and Luhansk or abandoned its NATO aspirations. Indeed, on December 29th Mr Poroshenko signed a law scrapping Ukraine’s neutral status.

The West has continued to press Mr Putin to stop supplying arms to the rebels before engaging in further talks about the make-up of Ukraine. In a sign of clear mistrust, European leaders called off a planned summit with Mr Putin in Astana. So Mr Putin decided to show his resolve.

Russian-backed separatists relaunched their offensive on Donetsk airport, which had become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Alexander Zakharchenko, the rebels’ leader, also attacked the port of Mariupol.

A missile barrage missed its target and instead hit a residential area, killing 30 civilians. As soon as this became clear, Mr Zakharchenko was instructed by Moscow to change his story and blame the Ukrainians and their Western backers for provocation — a narrative swiftly backed up by Mr Putin.

ukraine skitch map mariupol

ReutersMap of eastern Ukraine locating recent flashpoints between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, includes shaded area of control by the rebels and locates presence of Russian military units in the region.

Ukraine, Mr Putin declared, was in a state of civil war. But he added that the Ukrainian army was a “foreign NATO legion which doesn’t pursue the national interests of Ukraine but wants to restrain Russia.”

This statement was carefully prepared by a Russian television display of mysterious English-speaking soldiers in Ukrainian uniform and footage of American military commanders in Kiev. “After each such visit by American military, the fighting in Ukraine starts anew,” the main news programme explained.

This ratcheting up of anti-Western rhetoric is in part a response to a deteriorating economy. Indeed, Mr Putin upgraded the war into a Russia-NATO conflict just as Standard & Poor’s, a rating agency, was downgrading Russia’s credit rating to junk.

The fall in oil prices and continued pressure on the rouble is driving up prices, causing much grumbling among ordinary Russians. While the government is carefully avoiding the word crisis, it has started to talk of anti-crisis measures.

So is the opposition. Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader, and Boris Nemtsov, a veteran liberal, have called for an anti-crisis rally. “Putin is crisis and war. No Putin–no crisis and no war,” wrote Mr Nemtsov.

Mr Putin has also planted new defences within Russia. On the day the rebels launched their attack on Donetsk airport, an “anti-Maidan” movement was launched, consisting of tough-looking Cossacks,

Russian veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, black-leather-clad bikers called night wolves and professional sportsmen trained to fight any sign of liberalism. (This is on top of several thousand Chechen fighters under Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov, who swear personal loyalty to Mr Putin.)

Vladimir Putin Night Wolves Biker GangRussia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L) listens as Alexander Zaldostanov (R), president of the motorcycling club Night Wolves, gestures while speaking at the club in Moscow, July 7, 2009.

The group, whose launch was advertised in the state media, seems to have a licence to carry out extra-judicial violence. Their first action was to attack supporters of Mr Navalny who had gathered in a Moscow café.

The annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine have thus helped Mr Putin to consolidate power at home. But as the economy deteriorates, he cannot afford to let go of eastern Ukraine and seems trapped by the logic of escalating conflict.

As Carl Bildt, a former Swedish foreign minister and longtime Russia watcher, puts it, Mr Putin now has an explicitly revisionist agenda under which he is seeking to change the post-cold-war settlement of Europe through an information war and, if need be, by military force.

An explicit threat of a bigger war in Ukraine has been aired by Sergei Markov, a Kremlin propagandist, who suggests that Russia needs to topple the government in Kiev and occupy Odessa and Kharkiv. Only then, he writes, “will sanctions be lifted, the junta driven out of power and Ukraine become democratic and federal–in exchange for not taking Kiev.”

This warmongering is clearly aimed at the West, which is considering new sanctions, including cutting Russia out of the SWIFT banking system, something that could have a devastating impact on the economy. Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin’s prime minister, has warned that this would trigger unrestricted retaliation — and not just economically.

The danger is not that Russia declares war on NATO, but that its recklessness could have unintended consequences. There is also a risk that Ukraine, a country of 45m people with a will of its own, despite what Mr Putin thinks, could be provoked into full-scale war.

All this may make the situation in some ways even more perilous than in the cold war. Igor Ivanov, a former foreign minister, has even suggested, one hopes with some exaggeration:

“In the absence of political dialogue, with mutual mistrust reaching historical highs, the probability of unintended accidents, including those involving nuclear weapons, is getting more and more real.”

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Russian-Backed Rebels Are Attacking A Strategically Vital Ukrainian City

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Ukrainian servicemen guard a street, near the body of a victim killed by a recent shelling of a residential sector, in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, January 24, 2015.

KIEV (Reuters) – At least 20 people were killed by shelling in the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Saturday, regional police said, as a rebel leader said separatists were launching an offensive on the city, the news agency RIA reported.

The separatists have rejected more peace talks and fighting has surged to its most intense in months. The United Nations said on Friday that 262 had been killed in the previous nine days.

“Today an offensive was launched on Mariupol. This will be the best possible monument to all our dead,” RIA quoted rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko as saying at a memorial ceremony in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

He said separatists plan to encircle Debaltseve, a town north-east of Donetsk, in the next few days, the Russian news agency Interfax reported him as saying at the same event.

Mariupol city council and regional police said rebels fired rockets from long-range GRAD missile systems killing at least 20 and injuring 83. Interfax earlier said rebels had denied the attack.

Government-controlled Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, lies on a coastal route from the Russian border to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia from Ukraine last March.

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Mariupol sits between pro-Russian occupied areas and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March.

 

Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk condemned the incident as a deliberate attack on peaceful citizens by the rebels, but said the real threat lay beyond separatist territories.

“The world needs to stop the Russian aggressor threatening Ukraine, Europe and global security .. The problem is in the hero-town of Moscow – Kremlin, Vladimir Putin,” he said at a meeting of security and defense chiefs.

Despite international calls for a ceasefire, Zakharchenko vowed on Friday that his forces would push on with a new offensive, as the UN said the conflict, which began in east Ukraine more than nine months ago, was now in its “most deadly period” since a peace deal was agreed last September.

At the defense meeting in Kiev, Ukrainian Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak said in the past 24 hours there had been a serious escalation in fighting at frontlines across the conflict zone.

“Starting from Luhansk region and ending in Mariupol, everywhere illegal armed groups together with Russian units are going on the offensive,” he said.

In Mariupol, the attack started in the early morning, 76-year-old pensioner Leonid Vasilenko, who lives in the eastern suburbs of Mariupol, said by telephone.

“The walls were shaking, the window frames were shaking, paint started to crumble off the house. I hid in the basement. What else can you do? I took the dog and the cat. In the basement you could hear the earth tremble,” he said.

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A car burns on the street after a shelling by pro-Russian rebels of a residential sector of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, January 24, 2015.

 

The regional police said 20 people had been killed, while city authorities reported a further 83 were injured.

President Petro Poroshenko said last week Russia had 9,000 troops inside Ukraine and called on Moscow to withdraw them, blaming it for an armed aggression. Moscow denies sending forces and weapons to east Ukraine, despite what the West says is irrefutable proof.

On Friday Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed “criminal orders” by Ukrainian leaders on Friday for the surge in the conflict, which has killed over 5,000 people.

The War In Ukraine Has Reached Another Critical Phase

An aerial footage shot by a drone shows a multi-storey control tower of the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport damaged by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces, in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, seen in this still image taken from a January 15, 2015 handout video by Army. REUTERS/Army.SOS/Handout via Reuters
Still image taken from handout aerial footage shot by a drone shows a multistory control tower of the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport damaged by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces, in Donetsk.

 

Ukrainian troops launched a “mass operation” overnight, retaking almost all the territory of Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine lost to separatists in recent weeks, even as thousands gathered in Kiev for a state-sponsored peace march on Sunday.

The army’s offensive at the airport brought the fighting close to the big industrial city of Donetsk itself, center of a pro-Russian separatist rebellion.

Residents reported intensified outgoing shelling including from residential areas in central parts of the separatist-held city.

With attempts to restart peace talks stalled, pro-Russian rebels have stepped up attacks in the past week and casualties have mounted, including the deaths of 13 civilians in an attack on a passenger bus, which Kiev has blamed on the separatists.

The separatists had gained control of new areas of the airport and retaking much of this territory was a symbolic victory for Kiev, whom rebels have accused of escalating the conflict.

“The decision was taken for a mass operation … We succeeded in almost completely cleaning the territory of the airport, which belongs to the territory of Ukrainian forces as marked by military separation lines,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a televised briefing.

Lysenko said the operation had returned the battle lines near the airport to the previous status quo and that the Ukrainian army had thus not violated the Minsk 12-point peace plan agreed with Russia and separatist leaders last September.

President Petro Poroshenko underlined the need to fight for Ukraine‘s territorial integrity, as he addressed a crowd of several thousand gathered for a peace march in memory of those killed on the passenger bus.

“We will not give away one scrap of Ukrainian land. We will get back the Donbass … and show that a very important aspect of our victory is our unity,” he said.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko accused Kiev of attempting to return to all-out war, blaming the shelling around Donetsk on Ukrainian army troops.

“We’re talking about Kiev trying to unleash war again,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

UkraineUkrainian government

SYMBOL OF VALOUR

In Kiev, the army defenders of the airport are known by the science-fiction nickname of “cyborgs” in tribute to what is perceived as their superhuman valour.

“Just this past night our ‘cyborgs’ at Donetsk airport demonstrated their courage, patriotism, heroism, as a model for how our country must be defended,” Poroshenko said.

A ceasefire agreed at the talks in Minsk, capital of Belarus, in early September has been regularly violated from the start by both sides, and hopes of de-escalation have diminished in recent days as violence flared after plans for peace talks last week were abandoned.

In Donetsk, residents reported a sharp intensification of fighting.

“It was impossible to sleep — explosions, the walls were shaking. It seemed like they were firing from near the building … The DNR (rebel) army were firing from our district,” 53-year-old advertising executive Alla said by telephone.

Forty-year-old plumber Andrey Tkachenko, who lives in southern district of Donetsk, said the shelling had become noticeably worse in the past 24 hours.

“By now we are able to tell from the sound what’s flying. We’re used to the GRAD missiles, but now something stronger is firing all night and all day,” he said.

The World Health Organisation says more than 4,800 people have been killed in the conflict pitting Kiev’s forces against separatists whom the West say are supported and armed by Russia.

Despite what Kiev and the West says is incontrovertible proof, Russia denies its troops are involved or that it is funneling military equipment to the separatists.

With its runways pitted and cratered, the airport itself, with a multi-storey control tower and extensive outbuildings, has long since ceased to function.

But its hulk, battered by shelling and gunfire, has taken on symbolic value for both sides with government soldiers and separatists hunting each other often at close range in a deadly cat-and-mouse game among the ruins.

DPR to Lay Claims Over Whole Donetsk Region’s Territory: Deputy PM

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) is going to lay territorial claims over the entire territory of Ukraine's Donetsk Region, should the talks with Kiev occur, DPR Deputy Prime Minister Denis Pushilin said Sunday.

The Donetsk People’s Republic should be within the borders of the former Donetsk Region, DPR deputy prime minister said, pointing out that the issue should be addressed “at the negotiating table, without any weapons in hands.”

DONETSK, November 23 — The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) is going to lay territorial claims over the entire territory of Ukraine’s Donetsk Region, should the talks with Kiev occur, DPR Deputy Prime Minister Denis Pushilin said Sunday.

“We will insist on a full territorial integrity of the republic. It is within the borders of the former Donetsk Region,” Pushilin told reporters, pointing out that the issue should be addressed “at the negotiating table, without any weapons in hands.”

“Some people do not believe now that we will bring the whole territory of the region under control. But many people also did not believe that the republic would appear, that we would hold the referendum and elections, that we would withstand the onslaught of the [Ukrainian] army,” Pushilin said, answering the question whether Kiev would agree to hand over the whole territory of Donbas to the self-proclaimed republic.

DPR head Alexander Zakharchenko has repeatedly stated that the whole territory of the “former Donetsk Region” should become part of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Situation in Donetsk and Luhansk: Fighting Continues, Despite of Ceasefire

Following a February coup in Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk residents established people’s republics that later declared their independence. The crisis in Ukraine escalated when Kiev authorities launched a military operation against independence supporters in eastern Ukraine in mid-April.

Ukraine Rebels Vow to Retake Cities as Vote Nears

Pro-Russian insurgents vowed to keep battling Ukrainian forces and retake eastern cities, including the port of Mariupol as general elections near.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned today of Russian provocations ahead of the Oct. 26 ballot. Ukraine, the European Union and the U.S. say President Vladimir Putin has backed the rebels with arms and troops, charges Russiadenies.

Ensuring security for Ukraine’s more than 40 million citizens is the government’s main concern before the vote, the first time lawmakers will be picked since Russia annexed Crimea in March. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has left at least 3,660 dead, according to United Nations estimates. A Sept. 5 truce has been violated almost daily.

“It’s difficult to conduct elections in a country that is subject to Russian aggression,” Yatsenyuk told a government meeting in Kiev. “It’s clear that attempts to destabilize the situation will be continued.”

Standoff in Ukraine

Even with skirmishes, Yatsenyuk said he expects voters in at least half of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions where the rebels have set up their own governments, to go to the polls.

President Petro Poroshenko said a new, powerful pro-European coalition will be formed within days of the vote, according to a statement on his website.

Russian Recognition

Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said Russia will recognize the results of the nationwide polls, the Interfax news service reported.

While the truce has decreased the intensity of fighting in the east, rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko in Donetsk said “heavy military action can still not be ruled out,” Interfax reported. “Kramatorsk, Mariupol, Slovyansk — they’ll be ours,” he was cited as saying. “We intend to take them.”

Billionaire George Soros urged Europe to “get its act together” to prevent Ukraine’s economic collapse, something Putin “is waiting for,” Soros said at a conference in Brussels today. The geopolitical consequences of such a failure “would be far-reaching,” Soros said.

In an article published on the website of The New York Review of Books before he spoke in Brussels, Soros said it’s “high time for the members of the European Union to wake up and behave as countries indirectly at war.”

‘Full-Scale Assault’

While Putin has “so far abided” by the truce agreement, it’s the Russian leader who “retains the choice to continue the cease-fire as long as he finds it advantageous or to resume a full-scale assault,” Soros said.

The International Monetary Fund should give Ukraine $20 billion immediately and the country’s partners should provide further financing “conditional on implementation of the IMF-supported program, at their own risk, in line with standard practice,” Soros said.

Ukraine’s government today said it filed a complaint against the World Trade Organization over Russia’s decision to ban its fruit and vegetables this week.

“By taking such measures, the Russian side is failing to comply with provisions of a bilateral agreement and international standards for phytosanitary measures,” the Agriculture Ministry said in a statement.

Ukraine and rebels to seek peace plan, ceasefire on Friday

Members of the military special forces sit on an armoured vehicle near Kramatorsk September 4, 2014.   REUTERS-Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the main pro-Russian rebel leader said they would both order ceasefires on Friday, provided that an agreement is signed on a new peace plan to end the five month war in Ukraine’s east.

The first apparent breakthrough of its kind in the war comes after a week in which the pro-Moscow separatists scored major victories with what NATO says is the open support of thousands of Russian troops.

Speaking on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Wales, Poroshenko said the ceasefire would be conditional on a planned meeting going ahead in Minsk on Friday of envoys from Ukraine, Russia and Europe’s OSCE security watchdog.

Soldiers of Ukrainian self-defence battalion 'Azov' sit in a truck loaded with ammunition at a check point in the southern coastal town of Mariupol September 4, 2014. REUTERS-Vasily Fedosenko

“At 1400 local time (7.00 a.m. EDT on Friday), provided the (Minsk) meeting takes place, I will call on the General Staff to set up a bilateral ceasefire and we hope that the implementation of the peace plan will begin tomorrow,” Poroshenko told reporters.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said in a statement that the separatists would also order a ceasefire, from one hour later, provided that Kiev’s representatives signed up to a peace plan at the Minsk meeting.

The announcements come a day after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin put forward a seven-point peace plan, which would end the fighting in Ukraine’s east while leaving rebels in control of territory.

So far there has been no sign of a halt in fighting in the east, where rebels have rapidly advanced in the past week, backed by what Kiev and NATO say is the support of thousands of Russian troops with artillery and tanks.

A Ukrainian army serviceman rests as he repairs military vehicles at his camp near Kramatorsk September 4, 2014.   REUTERS-Gleb Garanich

Moscow denies its troops are there, in the face of what the West says is overwhelming evidence.

Reuters journalists heard explosions and saw columns of smoke on the eastern outskirts of Mariupol, a government-held port of 500,000 people that is the next big city in the path of the rebel advance. A Ukrainian military source said troops were bracing for a potential attack on the city.

Reuters reporters also heard government shells rain down overnight on a residential district Donetsk, capital of one of the rebels’ two self-proclaimed independent states.

Poroshenko won support from Western leaders at the NATO summit. The West has backed Kiev by imposing economic sanctions on Moscow, but has also made clear it will not fight to protect the country, where pro-Russian rebels rose up in two provinces after Moscow annexed the Crimea peninsula in March.

French President Francois Hollande, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and U.S. President Barack Obama meet to discus Ukraine at the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor resort, near Newport, in Wales September 4, 2014.    REUTERS-Alain Jocard-Pool

The Ukrainian president was invited to meet U.S. President Barack Obama, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Francois Hollande and other Western leaders at a summit of NATO in Wales hosted by Britain’s David Cameron.

“To the east, Russia has ripped up the rule book with its illegal, self-declared annexation of Crimea and its troops on Ukrainian soil threatening and undermining a sovereign nation state,” Obama and Cameron wrote in a joint newspaper editorial.

Hollande brought the biggest surprise on the eve of the summit: postponing the delivery of a helicopter carrier warship to Russia, a measure he had long resisted. Moscow accused him of caving in to U.S. political pressure.

“France’s reputation as a reliable partner that carries out its contractual obligations has been thrown into the furnace of American political ambitions,” Russian Foreign Ministry deputy spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.

A pro-Russian separatist checks documents of bus passengers at a checkpoint outside the village of Kreminets near the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, September 4, 2014. REUTERS-Maxim Shemetov

CONFLICTING SIGNALS

The past few days have seen conflicting signals from both Moscow and Kiev. Putin made a number of belligerent statements over the past week before unveiling his peace proposal on Wednesday and discussing it by telephone with Poroshenko.

The Ukrainian leader hinted at a possible ceasefire on his website on Wednesday, but that wording was later dropped. His prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, derided Putin’s peace proposal as a “deception” and said Putin’s real aim was to “destroy Ukraine and restore the Soviet Union”.

Ukraine has previously refused to discuss any political deal with the rebels, calling them international terrorists and proxies of Moscow. But with the hope evaporating in the past week of a swift victory over the rebels, Poroshenko may have been convinced that it is now time to hear the Kremlin’s offer.

A pro-Russian separatist inspects documents at a checkpoint outside the village of Kreminets near the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, September 4, 2014. REUTERS-Maxim Shemetov

This week the rebels dropped a demand for full independence and said they would accept some kind of special status in Ukraine. That lifts one of the main obstacles to peace talks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington of trying to undermine the nascent peace process.

“The surge in anti-Russian rhetoric that we have seen exactly when there is a very active effort to seek a political solution shows that the party of war in Kiev has active external support, in this case from the United States,” he said.

Pro-Russian separatists stand guard at a checkpoint outside the village of Kreminets near the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine September 4, 2014. REUTERS-Maxim Shemetov

Putin’s peace offer would leave rebels in control of territory that accounts for a tenth of Ukraine’s population and an even larger chunk of its industry.

It would also require Ukraine to remain unaligned. Kiev said last week it would try to join NATO, although full membership in the Western military alliance is still an unlikely prospect, since several members oppose it.

On the ground, there has so far been no sign yet of any ceasefire. Government forces shelled the southern outskirts of the rebel bastion of Donetsk overnight.

Water supplies in the city, which had a pre-war population of nearly 1 million people, stopped working overnight. Local authorities said an electric plant used for pumping had been damaged and they would try to supply water in tankers.

French President Francois Hollande, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi meet to discus Ukraine at the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor resort, near Newport, in Wales September 4, 2014.  REUTERS-Alain Jocard-Pool

BOMB SHELTER

Houses in Donetsk’s leafy Petrovka district were pockmarked with shrapnel. Residents had sought refuge in a bomb shelter.

“I don’t think they can reach any agreements now. Each side comes up with conditions unacceptable for the other. And so we get shelled,” said Lena, a resident who declined to give her surname.

Government troops had been on the offensive since Poroshenko was elected in June, squeezing the rebels into two provincial capitals, Donetsk and Luhansk.

But last week the rebels turned the tide with a dramatic advance that scattered government troops on a new front along the coast of the Sea of Azov that separates the rebellious provinces from Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed in March.

Ukrainian paratroopers ride in armoured vehicles near Kramatorsk September 4, 2014.   REUTERS-Gleb Garanich

The front line has drawn closer to Mariupol, where government forces and local residents have been digging trenches to hold off an assault. The second biggest city in rebellious Donetsk province, Mariupol has been in government hands since June when separatists were driven out with the help of patrols of local metalworkers.

A NATO officer said there was no sign that Russia had drawn down its forces in Ukraine after Putin’s peace offer. The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said NATO believed there were several thousand Russian troops in Ukraine, with hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles, which he said represented “no significant change”.

Members of military special forces sit on an armoured vehicle near Kramatorsk September 4, 2014. REUTERS-Gleb Garanich

NATO leaders are expected to take new steps at their summit to defend alliance members near Ukraine, including setting up a rapid reaction force. But the alliance has made clear it will not fight to defend non-member Ukraine itself. Western countries are relying instead on economic sanctions to pressurize Moscow.

The European Union is considering new sanctions this week which could tighten financial restrictions on Russian companies. Russia has responded to sanctions by banning imports of most Western food.

Ukraine says Russian tanks flatten town; EU to threaten more sanctions

Pro-Russian separatists walk at a destroyed war memorial on Savur-Mohyla, a hill east of the city of Donetsk, August 28, 2014. REUTERS-Maxim Shemetov

(Reuters) – Ukraine said Russian tanks had flattened a small border town and pro-Russian rebels had made fresh gains in its east, as EU leaders signalled on Saturday they would threaten more sanctions against Moscow over the crisis.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, attending an EU summit in Brussels, said he was hoping for progress in finding a political solution, but told journalists there were now thousands of foreign troops in his country.

Russia has repeatedly dismissed accusations from Kiev and Western powers that it has sent soldiers into its neighbour, or supported pro-Russian rebels fighting a five-month-old separatist war in Ukraine’s east.

A flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic is seen at the top of damaged war memorial at Savur-Mohyla, a hill east of the city of Donetsk, August 28, 2014.  REUTERS-Maxim Shemetov

But Ukraine military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told journalists in Kiev that Russian tanks had entered the small Ukrainian town of Novosvitlivka on the border with Russia and fired on every house.

“We have information that virtually every house has been destroyed,” Lysenko added, without giving details on when the reported attack took place. Ukraine’s daily military briefings typically cover the previous 24 hours.

Lysenko said the rebels had made new gains just east of the border city of Luhansk, one of the rebels’ main strongholds, after opening up a new front in another area last week.

“Direct military aggression by the Russian Federation in the east of Ukraine is continuing. The Russians are continuing to send military equipment and ‘mercenaries’,” Ukraine’s defence and security council said in a separate Twitter post.

A Pro-Russian separatist walks past a destroyed tank at Savur-Mohyla, a hill east of the city of Donetsk, August 28, 2014. REUTERS-Maxim Shemetov

Kiev and Western countries say recent rebel gains were the result of the arrival of armoured columns of Russian troops, sent by Russian President Vladimir Putin to prop up a separatist rebellion that would otherwise have been near collapse.

There was no immediate fresh comment from Russia on Saturday. Putin on Friday compared Kiev’s drive to regain control of its rebellious eastern cities to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in World War Two.

“NO TIME TO WASTE”

According to a draft statement, EU leaders at Saturday’s Brussels summit were set to ask the European Commission and the EU’s diplomatic service “to urgently undertake preparatory work” on further sanctions that could be implemented if necessary.

French President Francois Hollande stressed that a failure by Russia to reverse a flow of weapons and troops into eastern Ukraine would force the bloc to impose new economic measures.

“Are we going to let the situation worsen, until it leads to war?” Hollande said at a news conference. “Because that’s the risk today. There is no time to waste.”

A Pro-Russian separatist inspects a gun at a destroyed war memorial at Savur-Mohyla, a hill east of the city of Donetsk, August 28, 2014.  REUTERS-Maxim Shemetov

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the EU was prepared to toughen sanctions against Russia but also that it wanted a political deal to end the confrontation.

“We are ready to take very strong and clear measures but we are keeping our doors open to a political solution,” Barroso said at a news conference with Ukraine’s president.

Poroshenko said he expected to see progress toward peace soon, without going into details.

SHOTS FIRED

The crisis started when Ukraine’s Moscow-backed president was ousted by street protests in February after he ditched a pact with the EU that would have moved the ex-Soviet republic firmly towards Europe and away from Russia.

Russia denounced the pro-Western leadership that took over as “a fascist junta” and went on to annex Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. Pro-Russian separatists then rebelled in Ukraine’s mainly Russian-speaking east in April, setting up ‘people’s republics’ and declaring they wanted to join Russia.

A senior U.N. human rights official said on Friday nearly 2,600 civilians, Ukrainian government forces and rebels had been killed in a conflict which has led to the biggest Russia-West crisis since the Cold War.

A Pro-Russian separatist stands near the damaged war memorial at Savur-Mohyla, a hill east of the city of Donetsk, Ukraine, August 28, 2014. REUTERS-Maxim Shemetov

In Kiev, Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said a group of pro-Ukrainian fighters had broken out of encirclement by pro-Russian rebels near Donetsk early on Saturday, though other reports suggested many remained trapped.

Defence Minister Valery Heletey also ordered a clamp-down on information coming out of Ilovaysk, a town to the east of Donetsk.

Indicating government forces were being pulled back from the area, Heletey said on his Facebook page: “As soon as the danger for Ukrainian units has passed, all open information for the current period relating to the withdrawal of forces from Ilovaysk will be published.”

Last week pro-Russian rebels opened a new front in a separate, coastal territory along the Sea of Azov and pushed Ukrainian troops out of the town of Novoazovsk. They are now threatening the strategic port city of Mariupol.

Several shots were fired on Saturday at a car carrying Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, but he escaped unscathed, another separatist leader, Sergei Kavtaradze, told Reuters.

“Zakharchenko wasn’t hurt. His driver was wounded and is being operated on,” Kavtaradze said, adding that an operation was under way to catch whoever had fired the shots.

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