Russian President Vladimir Putin has told leaders of Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk that he favors a plan for a prisoner swap with Kyiv, in a rare acknowledgement of direct contact with the separatist forces.
Russian state-run news agency TASS on November 15 quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying Putin spoke by phone with separatist leaders Aleksandr Zakharchenko of the Donetsk region and Igor Plotnitsky of Luhansk.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has compared the April 26, 1986, Chernobyl nuclear disaster with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine’s east, adding that “Russia is conducting an undeclared war against his country.”
Speaking at Chernobyl nuclear plant site on April 26, where he and his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka commemorated victims of the nuclear disaster on its 31st anniversary, Poroshenko said:
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has arrived in Brussels to attend a March 31 NATO meeting that was rescheduled to allow him to attend.
A senior State Department official told reporters that Tillerson will push alliance members to increase their defense spending and will work with allies to press Russia to abide by the Minsk agreement to end the crisis in Ukraine.
So here we go again. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka seems to be doing what he does best: flirting with the West, antagonizing Russia, and implicitly threatening to stray from Moscow’s orbit.
It’s the Lukashenka two-step. And it seems we’ve seen this movie before.
And every time the Belarusian strongman has tried this trick in the past, it’s worked like a charm. He gets some concessions from the West and Russia keeps feeding him subsidies.
But if Lukashenka has been a master gamer in the past, this time the game feels different.
With Minsk and Moscow at odds over gas prices, oil deliveries, food exports, Belarus granting visa-free travel to Westerners, Russia imposing border controls, and the Kremlin’s push for a new air base, this time it all feels much more dangerous.
Ukrainian border guards detained a soldier suspected of being a Russian army officer who was picked up while riding in a military truck packed with ammunition at the Berezove checkpoint, about 28 miles southwest of the militant-held city of Donetsk.
Guards found nearly 200 cases containing grenades and ammunition, including rocket-propelled shells, inside the military truck.
“He (the Russian officer) had no documents. But he admitted that he was a chief of an RAO (rocket-artillery weapons unit). He is responsible for ammunition supply.
He said that while delivering the ammunition they had got lost,” Oleksandr Tomchyshyn, a border-guards spokesman said. Another man who was detained identified himself as a pro-Russian separatist fighter.
If he is confirmed as a Russian soldier, Ukraine is likely to use the case to bolster its charges that Russia is continuing direct involvement in the 15-month-long conflict and failing to honor a peace agreement worked out in Minsk, Belarus, in February.
Meanwhile, Ukraine and Western countries contend that Russia is providing troops and weaponry to pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Since April 2014, at least 6,400 people have been killed in the region while Russia continues to deny such allegations, the Associated Press reports.
A spokesman said the two men may have taken a wrong direction and driven toward Ukrainian forces manning a checkpoint southwest of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk by mistake.
“We can assume that they took a wrong direction while driving, got lost, and came on our checkpoint,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanuk told a briefing.
The two men wore military uniforms without insignia and carried no identity documents, he said.
In the face of what Kiev and Western governments say is undeniable proof, Moscow denies its regular forces are engaged actively in the conflict on behalf of the separatists.
Though a fragile ceasefire seems to be holding, thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in Ukraine’s industrialized Russian-speaking east.
Ukraine is still holding two Russian soldiers who were captured in May and have been charged with terrorism. Russia says the two men had quit their special-forces unit to go to Ukraine on their own.
Here is a video of the truck found at the Berezove checkpoint:
The ministry said President Poroshenko had “totally ignored” Minsk provisionscalling for dialogue with the pro-Russian rebels on arrangements for local elections and the regions’ future status.
A statement from a Donetsk rebel leader, Denis Pushilin, also castigated Mr Poroshenko over the “non-agreed amendments”, which he said “breach the spirit and letter of the Minsk accords”.
Mr Pushilin said “the Minsk process is in fact interrupted” because Mr Poroshenko “does not respect the Donbas [Donetsk and Luhansk] people, he does not want peace”.
Mr Poroshenko’s bill says special status would have to follow local elections held in accordance with Ukrainian law and under international observation.
In addition, he says the elections would have to take place without any presence of “mercenaries” and with open access for Ukrainian media.
Separately, Ukrainian MPs adopted a resolution describing as “temporarily occupied territories” parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Kiev government, Western leaders and Nato say there is clear evidence that Russia has helped the rebels with troops and heavy weapons. Russia denies that, insisting that any Russians on the rebel side are “volunteers”.
More than 6,000 people have been killed in clashes since the rebels seized large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions last April – a month after Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula.
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.
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.