Ukrainian forces have been forced to retreat from Lugansk airport in the face of a Russian troop attack and Moscow soldiers moved into key cities in the east on Monday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Europe of ignoring the Ukrainian military’s “direct targeting” of civilians in the conflict and said the offensive pushed by insurgents there were simply an attempt to expel Kiev’s forces from residential areas.
He also urged the EU to show “common sense” after its threat to impose more sanctions on Moscow over the months-long crisis that has sank East-West relations to their lowest level since the Cold War.
The latest accusations of Russian troops partaking in the fighting that has pitted pro-Moscow rebels against Kiev’s troops came as a “contact group” of Russian, Ukrainian and OSCE representatives was due to discuss the conflict during a meeting in Minsk on Monday.
Ukraine’s defence minister said that Russian troops were moving in the main cities of Lugansk and Donetsk.
“The information that Russian troops are there has been confirmed,” Valeriy Geletey told Ukraine’s Inter channel.
“We are fighting Russia and it is Russia which is deciding what will happen in the Donbass,” he said referring to the informal name for Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
President Petro Poroshenko meanwhile told military cadets in Kiev on Monday that “the situation has aggravated in recent days – there is direct, overt aggression against Ukraine from the neighbouring state.”
Kiev military spokesmen said after an hours-long battle against a “reinforced tank battalion of the Russian armed forces,” Ukrainian troops retreated from their positions south of rebel bastion Lugansk.
“Ukrainian soldiers received an order and made an organised retreat from the Lugansk airport and Georgiyivka village,” security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said. “Judging by the precision of the strikes, professional artillery men of the Russian armed forces are the ones firing.”
The retreat marked the latest setback for Ukrainian troops, which had been closing in on rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk until about a week ago, when the insurgents opened a new front in the south, with, according to Kiev and NATO, the help of regular Russian troops.
Since then, the rebels’ lightning offensive has forced Ukrainian army units to abandon numerous positions in the south and east and geared up to defend the strategic port of Mariupol, which had been peaceful for months after government troops routed the rebels in May.
AFP correspondents said the presence of Ukrainian army in the region has visibly decreased in recent days, with another checkpoint in the western outskirts of the rebel hub Donetsk disappearing on Monday.
Kiev and the West have repeatedly accused Russia of direct involving in the pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine, with NATO saying last week that Russia had more than 1000 of its troops deployed in Ukraine and 20,000 massed on the border.
Russia has repeatedly denied the charges, with Sergei Lavrov saying on Monday in the latest rebuttal: “There will be no military intervention (in Ukraine), we are for an exclusively peaceful resolution of that most serious crisis, that tragedy.”
Lavrov also called for an “immediate ceasefire” to be discussed by Russian, Ukrainian and OSCE representatives meeting in Minsk later on Monday.
“I am very much counting upon the negotiations set for today, to above all focus on agreeing an immediate and unconditional ceasefire,” Lavrov said.