Ukraine conflict is a “red hot” war that shows no sign of ending soon, the Defence Secretary warned as he announced Britain will step up training to Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists.
Michael Fallon said the 18-month long crisis had not settled into a frozen war and Ukraine’s eastern border was still at risk from Vladimir Putin.
He also opened the door to sending further military trainers to the country if the Kiev government asked for them and said the UK would offer support for as long as it was needed.
Mr Fallon spoke on a visit to see British military training teams outside the Ukrainian capital, as a surge in fighting in the east of the country saw the heaviest artillery attacks on government positions for six months, with both sides accusing one another of readying for a return to all-out offensive warfare.
The most intense violence has centred on Starohnativka, a town 30 miles north of the Ukrainian-controlled strategic port of Mariupol.
The Ukrainian military said it repulsed an attack by 400 rebels backed by tanks who assaulted its positions there on Monday morning.
Shelling was reported to be continuing in the area on Tuesday. Eduard Basurin, a military spokesman for the self proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, denied breaking the ceasefire and said at least one civilian had died in an “unprecedented” Ukrainian artillery attack near Starohnativka.
“The command of [Ukraine’s] anti terrorist operation continues active preparations for a large-scale offensive against the Donetsk People's Republic,” Basurin said at a briefing.
Starohnativka is important because it shields the Ukrainian-controlled section of the Donetsk to Mariupol highway.
Ukraine fears that Mariupol will be the separatist’s next strategic target if they renew offensive operations.
One Ukraine soldier was killed and 13 injured in the past 24 hours, Alexander Motusnyak, a government spokesman, said on Tuesday.
A small British force of 75 soldiers working in teams across the country will step up training Ukrainian troops in urban combat, dealing with mines and creating stronger fortifications, Mr Fallon said.
The troops have trained 1,000 members of the Ukrainian army and national guard so far and aim to train 1,000 more by the end of the year, he said.
Mr Fallon said: “We shouldn't lose sight of just how serious this situation is. Seven thousand people have already died in the Ukraine, right on the doorstep of Europe, as Ukraine fights for its freedom. This is not a frozen conflict, it’s still red hot.”
He said he did not expect the conflict to end “anytime soon”.
The Minsk ceasefire deal signed in mid-February has failed to stem the violence and both sides regularly accuse the other of violating its terms.
Mr Fallon said: “Since the Minsk peace agreements themselves have been signed, around 200 Ukrainian soldiers have lost their lives and around 2,000 have been injured.
So this is not a frozen conflict and we are not going to turn our back on Ukraine.
"We are standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine while its borders are still threatened, for as long as its borders are threatened, we are going to continue to support Ukraine, a friend in need.”
He said as long as Russia keeps heavy weapons in the Donbass region and significant numbers of troops, “you can’t rule out this continuing threat to Ukraine’s eastern border”.
Britain’s training mission was not provocative, he said.
“This is not lethal aid, this is not provocative. This is all designed to help the Ukrainian forces better defend themselves and to save lives. All of it is being conducted in Western Ukraine, well away from the conflict zone. There is nothing provocative about this.”
Ukrainian forces have repeatedly asked for anti-tank weapons and anti-artillery radar from Britain and America to stop the onslaught from the well-armed, Moscow-backed rebels.
Asked if Britain was prepared to send more trainers if Kiev asked, he said:
“Yes, of course we will respond to that.”
The United States says the separatists have launched more attacks in recent days than any similar time period since February.
Source: The Telegraph