WASHINGTON, DC -- On a day that the Ukrainian government announced a unilateral cease-fire in its battle with separatists in the country’s east, the Obama administration raised the stakes with Russia, accusing the Kremlin of continuing to covertly arm the rebels.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian military, Vladislav Seleznyov, said the cease-fire would begin at 10 p.m. local time.
Ukraine’s new president, Petro O. Poroshenko, has stressed that the plan hinges on the sealing of the porous border with Russia, to prevent the flow of fighters and arms.
There was no immediate reaction from separatist leaders, but the Kremlin issued an angry statement complaining about artillery fire that struck a Russian border post, with demands for an investigation and an apology.
“The statement by the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, on the temporary cessation of hostilities was accidentally or deliberately made against the backdrop of shelling of Russian territory,” the Kremlin said in its statement, adding that a building at the border post had been destroyed and a customs agent seriously injured.
“The Russian side is waiting for an explanation and an apology,” the Kremlin said, adding, about the cease-fire, “The initial analysis, unfortunately, shows that this is not an invitation to peace and negotiations but an ultimatum for the militias of southeast Ukraine to surrender.”
In addition, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, spoke by phone with the new Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, and Mr. Lavrov complained about demands that Russian tighten control of its border with Ukraine.
Mr. Lavrov, in the call, against insisted that Russia did not control — or speak for — the separatist rebels.
Russia’s vehement reaction was somewhat surprising, given that the halt in military operations was part of a broader peace plan that Mr. Poroshenko has been developing in recent weeks in consultation with Russia and Western leaders.
In Washington on Friday, American officials added another element to an increasingly complex situation, accusing Russia of working to undermine the prospects for peace even as President Vladimir V. Putin consulted with Mr. Poroshenko virtually daily on his peace proposal.
President Obama warned Mr. Putin earlier this month that the West would impose “additional costs” on Russia if its provocations were to continue.
“We have information that Russia has redeployed significant military forces to its border with Ukraine,” a senior Obama administration official told reporters on Friday.
“Russian Special Forces are also maintaining points along the Ukrainian border to provide support to separatist fighters.”
The State Department reported last week that three aging Russian T-64 tanks had been sent to Ukraine, and Ukrainian officials recently told Western officials that 10 more Russian tanks have been provided to Ukrainian separatists.
Adding to Western concerns, the senior Obama administration official said, artillery has been moved to a deployment site inside southwest Russia and may soon be shipped across the border.
American officials said Russia was providing older weapons that its forces have phased out but that are known to remain in the Ukrainian military’s inventory.
“The desire here is to mask the Russian hand” by allowing Ukrainian separatists to claim the weapons were captured on the battlefield, the administration official said.
The official asked not to be identified by name, in line with the Obama administration’s protocol for briefing reporters.
Mr. Putin appears to be calculating that he can continue to provide military support to the separatists without triggering tough economic reprisals as long as the Kremlin denies that it is involved and avoids obvious provocations, like sending conventional Russian military units into eastern Ukraine, American officials said.
To date, the United States and European allies have imposed only limited sanctions, directed at Russian individuals or specific companies, in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and allegations that it is linked to the violence in eastern Ukraine.
The next stage would involve tougher sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy like finance, energy and defense industries.
On Friday, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on seven Ukrainian separatists, including Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the onetime self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk, and Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Before the cease-fire was announced, skirmishes for control of Krasny Liman, a railroad hub north of Donetsk, stretched into a second day.
The Ukrainian military deployed both air and artillery strikes to oust pro-Russian separatist fighters, said Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry.
Mr. Seleznyov said seven government soldiers had been killed and 30 injured since fighting over a conduit road into the town began Thursday morning.
He also said 300 rebel fighters had died in the fighting since Thursday, a figure that could not be independently verified.
Mr. Seleznyov said the number was a “hard number,” not propaganda.
But that figure was far higher than those provided Thursday night by rebel forces, which said their number of dead and injured was in the single digits.
Mr. Poroshenko had said he would call a unilateral cease-fire when he was ready to announce what has been advertised as a 14-point plan.
Details from the initial draft that have leaked in the Ukrainian news media so far include some measure of decentralization, new elections and a more robust border with Russia.
The fighting in Ukraine this week also prompted a phone call by Mr. Putin to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and to President François Hollande of France to express his “grave concern” about Ukraine’s continuing military operations, the Kremlin news agency said.
The leaders also discussed the tensions caused by Russia’s decision this week to halt gas shipments to Ukraine over $4.5 billion in disputed payments.
While denying any role in directing the separatist violence, Russia has acknowledged that it has forces near Ukraine’s border.
“Given the situation in the east, the tightening of Russian border security requires certain measures,” Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, told the Rossiya 24 cable news channel.
“The armed forces are being called in.”
The senior Obama administration official told reporters that some Russian forces near Ukraine had taken up positions that “are within a handful of kilometers of Ukrainian territory, the closest that they’ve been since the invasion of Crimea.”
“We also have information that additional forces are due to arrive in coming weeks,” the senior administration official added.
Source: The New York Times