Russia warned the United States yesterday (20 November) against supplying arms to Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, hours before US Vice-President Joe Biden was due to arrive in Kyiv.
Ukraine accused President Vladimir Putin of treating its territory like a “playing field”, trying to unleash a full-scale war that would pose a broader threat to NATO countries.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in Moscow that a US official’s suggestion Washington should consider sending arms to Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels have been fighting government forces since April, sent a “very serious signal”.
Lukashevich cautioned against “a major change in policy of the [US] administration in regard to the conflict” in Ukraine.
“That [would be] a direct violation of agreements reached, including (agreements reached) with the participation of the United States,” he said.
The United States backs Kyiv in its struggle against the pro-Russian separatists in two eastern regions, and has imposed sanctions on Russia over its policies.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Jeffrey Rathke said the United States is “continuing to assess how best to support Ukraine” and “nothing is off the table” including lethal aid. “I think if we’re talking about destabilization, we have to start with Russia’s actions and the separatists that are backed by Russia,” Rathke added.
Moscow supports the separatists, but denies it is backing the rebels with arms and troops in a conflict which the United Nations says has killed more than 4,300 since mid-April.
The UN said the death rate in the conflict had grown in the past eight weeks despite a ceasefire underpinned by the Minsk Accord, signed on 5 September by Russia, Ukraine and rebels from the Ukrainian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s envoy to a Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, cited reports of new military buildup. “The outlook is still bleak,” she said.
US President Barack Obama’s choice to fill the number two spot at the State Department, Anthony Blinken, told a congressional hearing on Wednesday:
“I believe that, given the serious Russian violations of the agreement that they signed…that one thing that could hopefully get them to think twice and deter them from further action is strengthening the capacity of the Ukrainian forces, including with defensive lethal equipment.”
Blinken said he was sure the provision of lethal assistance would come up for discussion during Biden’s visit to Kyiv.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said the West and Ukraine had a common interest in preventing a large-scale war.
“Putin’s actions are a threat to everyone, the global order, global peace, a direct threat to the EU and NATO member countries,” he told a news conference.
NATO warplanes have had to scramble 400 times this year in response to an increase in Russian air activity around Europe not seen since the Cold War, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday (20 November).
Speaking to U.S., German and Estonian troops at a newly expanded and renovated air base in western Estonia, which once housed a Soviet military installation, Stoltenberg said the problem was not just where the Russians are flying but that they are not turning on their transponders or communicating.
He said the flights - which have risen 50% over the last year - posed a risk to commercial air traffic.
"This pattern is risky and unjustified, so NATO remains vigilant. We are here and we are ready to defend all our allies against any threats," Stoltenberg said in a speech after meeting Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas.
"It is a pattern which we have not seen for many years and it is a pattern that reminds us of the way they conducted these kind of military air activities back in the time of the Cold War," the NATO chief said.
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.
The fighting has escalated sharply after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered on 1 July an assault on separatists. The EU's resolve to punish Russia strengthened after the downing in Ukraine on 17 July of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, killing all 298 people on board. 194 of the passengers were from the Netherlands.
Western leaders say pro-Russian rebels almost certainly shot the airliner down by mistake with a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Moscow has blamed Kyiv for the tragedy.
On 27 August NATO and the U.S. said Russian incursions into Ukraine took an ‘overt and obvious form’ and on 28 August Poroshenko said Russia had invaded Ukraine.