Kyiv and Moscow blamed each other for clashes in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region on Thursday as western officials continued to question Russia’s claims it had withdrawn troops from close to the country’s border.
The Ukrainian army said “Russian occupation forces” controlling breakaway far eastern regions of Ukraine had “with special cynicism” shelled a kindergarten in a village in the Luhansk region, injuring two civilians. It later said shelling was occurring in more than 20 separate locations as unconfirmed videos including the sound of live fire appeared on social media.
Russia — which backs separatists in the Donbas but denies, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that it is a party to the conflict — blamed Ukraine for the escalation. Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said the shelling “was a subject of very, very deep concern”.
“We have warned many times that Ukraine’s excessive concentration of its armed forces next to the line of contact, along with the possibility of provocations, could be highly dangerous. And now we can see these provocations are happening,” Peskov told reporters.
The flare-up was the latest in a smouldering conflict that has claimed about 14,000 lives in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk since erupting in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
A statement posted on the website of Donetsk-based Russia-backed separatists said: “The situation on the line of contact has escalated significantly over the past few hours.”
Pointing to the incident in the Luhansk village of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet: “We call on all partners to swiftly condemn this severe violation of Minsk [peace] agreements by Russia amid an already tense security situation.”
The increased fighting in Donbas comes as the US, UK and Nato continued to rebut Russia’s claims this week that it was pulling back some of its forces from the border with Ukraine and in Crimea as well as Donbas.
The White House late on Wednesday called the Kremlin’s claims that it is withdrawing forces from the Ukrainian border “false” and accused Russia of increasing its troop presence in the region by about 7,000 in recent days.
Jim Hockenhull, the UK’s defence intelligence chief, said Britain had sightings of “additional [Russian] armoured vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving towards Ukraine’s borders”.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, accused the west of fanning “hysteria” by accusing Moscow of not withdrawing its troops. “This is where the escalation is, in [how] they are constantly filling people’s minds with these threats and scare stories,” Lavrov said after meeting his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio, Interfax reported.
The Thursday flare-up has also raised fears that Putin — who has massed more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine and warned this week that Kyiv was conducting a “genocide” in Donbas — could use it as a pretext to invade the country. The US and UK have repeatedly warned that Moscow could orchestrate such a “false-flag” operation to justify a deeper incursion.
“Russia’s claim of genocide in Ukraine is a reprehensible falsehood,” the US mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said in an overnight tweet.
The OSCE’s special monitoring mission in Ukraine “has complete access to the government controlled areas of Ukraine and has never reported anything remotely resembling Russia’s claims”, the mission added.