Ukraine’s foreign minister has accused Russia of flagrantly threatening Ukraine with destruction as fears continue to rise over a possible escalation of hostilities in the country’s conflict-stricken east.
Fighting has intensified in recent weeks in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists since April 2014 after the rebels seized a swath of territory there.
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Meanwhile, Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops as well as tanks and artillery near the shared border in the region. Moscow has also mobilised troops in the annexed Black Sea region of Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in March 2014.
Addressing a news conference on Thursday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned the Kremlin’s “aggravation of the security situation” and accused Russian pundits and officials of “openly threatening Ukraine with war and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood”.
“Moscow’s actions and statements [are] aimed at escalating military tensions and undermining diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian conflict,” he said.
Kuleba also warned Moscow against initiating any incursion into Ukraine, stating any intensification of the escalation in the Donbas region, of which Donetsk and Lugansk are a part, would have “very painful” consequences for Russia.
“The red line of Ukraine is the state border. If Russia crosses the red line, then it will have to suffer,” he said. “The world is on the side of Ukraine and international law.”
Baltic nations rally around Ukraine
Kuleba’s warning came as the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia arrived in Ukraine on Thursday morning in a show of solidarity in the face of the Russian military buildup.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters that “Ukraine will never be on its own”.
“We stand with you, we stand in solidarity,” he said.
Russia has previously said its troop movements pose no threat and are merely defensive. It has also stated the military units would remain in position as long as the Kremlin saw fit.
But the buildup has alarmed Ukraine’s allies, prompting calls from NATO for Russian President Vladimir Putin to order a pullback.
On Wednesday, NATO members Germany and the United States urged Moscow to reverse course and de-escalate the situation in the region.
A day earlier, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia to end its “unjustified” military buildup.
While Kyiv has welcomed the shows of Western support, they fall short of Ukraine’s desire for full NATO membership – which Moscow opposes.
Moscow blames NATO, US
Moscow has refused to change tack, and this week blamed NATO and the US for turning Ukraine into a “powder keg” with increasing arms supplies to the country.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied interfering in Donbas, but Ukraine and several Western countries have said separatist forces in the region have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russia.
On Tuesday, in the first public description of the military buildup, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow had moved two army and three paratrooper units to its western border as part of a large snap drill meant to test combat readiness and respond to what he called threatening military action by NATO.
Shoigu said on state television that the three-week exercise was due to wrap up in the next two weeks.
He also claimed NATO was deploying 40,000 troops and 15,000 pieces of military equipment near Russia’s borders, mainly in the Black Sea and the Baltic regions. NATO denies having made such plans.
Russia has previously accused NATO of destabilising Europe with its troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland since the annexation of Crimea, which came after an uprising that toppled former Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.