Ukraine’s smouldering seven-year war with Russian-backed separatists on its eastern border has flared up sharply in recent days after the worst clashes in months.
Four Ukrainian soldiers were killed — the largest daily death toll for government forces since the latest shaky ceasefire took effect last July — after an hours-long battle last Friday, north of the separatist stronghold city of Donetsk.
Kyiv and Moscow accuse each other of triggering the escalation in the conflict, which has claimed about 14,000 lives since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
The Kremlin accused Ukrainian forces of resuming the hostilities as a prelude to full-scale fighting, which eased in 2015 under a faltering peace agreement brokered by France and Germany in Minsk.
“We express concern over the growing tension and express concern that the Ukrainian side might resort to provocative actions that could lead to war. We really don’t want to see that,” Dmitry Peskov, spokesman of Russian president Vladimir Putin, told reporters on Wednesday, according to Interfax.
He added that Russia, which denies any involvement in the conflict despite overwhelming evidence it controls the separatists, considers it a “civil war”.
Peskov said Putin stressed the “lack of an alternative” to the Minsk agreements during a phone call with France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday evening. Putin accused Ukraine of not fulfilling its obligations under the treaty and claimed it had “provoked” the recent flare-up, according to a Kremlin readout.
The pact is under pressure due to Russia’s reluctance to acknowledge its role in the war and Ukraine’s resistance to giving the two conflict regions autonomy in its constitution.
The three leaders last met Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to discuss the agreements in Paris in 2019, but made little progress.
Peskov said Putin, Macron, and Merkel agreed that a new summit was “essential” but would only likely take place after negotiations based on the Paris meeting resumed.
The US has expressed concern over the recent flare-up. On Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, that the US had “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, in the face of continuing aggression”.
US European Command has raised its watch level to that of “potential imminent crisis”, the highest level, according to the New York Times.
Kyiv and its western backers accuse Russia of orchestrating and fuelling what they describe as a proxy separatist war in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
In recent weeks, officials have also warned of military build-ups near the conflict zone and exercises in Crimea, which has been starved for water supplies since Ukraine turned off its access to canals following the annexation.
Addressing Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday about the deaths of the soldiers, Ruslan Khomchak, commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, said Russia’s behaviour was “aggressive” and a “threat to the military security of the state”.
“Under the guise of control exercises . . . the Russian armed forces are gradually increasing troops near the state border of Ukraine in the north, east and south,” Khomchak said.
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington