Fears of renewed conflict in East Ukraine as Moscow and Kyiv trade blame for escalating violence

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Roland Oliphant
·3 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
A Ukrainian serviceman on the front line in Donetsk region on February 19, 2021. - Anatolii Stepanov/AFP
A Ukrainian serviceman on the front line in Donetsk region on February 19, 2021. - Anatolii Stepanov/AFP

The Kremlin yesterday warned the frozen war in eastern Ukraine was on the brink of dangerous escalation as Moscow and Kyiv blamed one another for a recent surge in violence.

Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, on Thursday accused Kyiv's forces of shelling in breach of the ceasefire agreement and entering areas where they were not meant to be.

Ukraine accused pro-Russian forces, which are widely believed to be under Russian command, of shelling its troops to provoke retaliation.

Mr Peskov said Russia, which officially denies deploying its own troops to the area, was using its influence to restrain pro-Russian forces and called on France and Germany to do the same for Ukraine

"We also hope all our partners… will pay attention to the growing tension on the contact line and will use their influence to prevent this escalation from crossing a dangerous line,” Mr Peskov said. "A red line would be the resumption of full-scale hostilities,” he said.

Russia and Ukraine have been in a state of undeclared war since 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Crimea and sent weapons and troops to support a separate uprising in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. At least 14,000 people have died in the war to date.

Intense fighting ended following a ceasefire in early 2015, but there have been repeated skirmishes along the line of contact over the past six years.

A stricter ceasefire introduced last summer stopped most tit-for-tat shelling, but the pace of violations has grown in recent weeks and at least 10 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since New Year.

On Wednesday the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two Russian-backed breakaway statelets in East Ukraine, said it had authorised its forces to pre-emptively fire on Ukrainian positions in response to what it said were Ukrainian ceasefire violations.

Ukraine's military on Thursday accused pro-Russian forces of shelling its positions to provoke them into returning fire. It said Russian-backed forces had violated the ceasefire four times within 24 hours.

Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of Ukraine and head of the country’s delegation to a tri-lateral contact group with Russia and the OSCE, said Ukrainian forces would answer enemy fire “symmetrically.”

He earlier accused Russia of escalating the military confrontation in response to a series of moves by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, to challenge Russia off the battlefield.

They include the decision last month to revoked the broadcast licenses of three television channels owned by Taras Kozak, a politician from a pro-Russian opposition party.

On February 19 he also sanctioned Viktor Medvedchuk, a close associate of Mr Kozak. Mr Medvedchuk, a prominent tycoon, is a Ukrainian citizen but has close ties to Vladimir Putin and has been described as one of the Kremlin’s key advisors on Ukraine.

Security officials said at the time that they were investigating Mr Medvedchuk over alleged financing of terrorism in relation to the sale of coal from mines in territory controlled by pro-Russian forces.

The moves were praised by some in Ukraine as a long-overdue confrontation with enablers of Kremlin influence in the country.

Critics said the move amounted to silencing political opponents.