The European Commission announced that President Jean-Claude Juncker will receive Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko before the end of this month, as the situation in eastern Ukraine deterioriates.
Juncker spoke with Poroshenko on Tuesday (18 August) to discuss the current situation and Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk agreement, Commission spokesperson Annika Breidthardt told the press today. She added that they had agreed to meet in Brussels before the end of the month.
Simultaneously, the Ukrainian side published a press release about the phone conversation, specifying that Poroshenko and Juncker expressed common concern over the escalation in Donbas and condemned militants’ shelling of civilians near Mariupol.
“The parties discussed ways to ensure the fulfilment of the Minsk agreements by Russia,” the Ukrainian communiqué says (see background).
Ukraine said that pro-Russian rebels had sharply reduced their attacks on Tuesday, in the wake of Western condemnation of the most deadly violence in the separatist east in more than a month.
According to a statement by the Ukrainian ministry of foreign affairs, the militants, using Russian weapons, have significantly increased shelling of Ukrainian military positions, civilian locations and infrastructure facilities.
“During this period, the number of shelling recorded has exceeded 850. In particular, on 14 August, the militants shelled the Ukrainian side 175 times. This is a record number over last six months. Heavy weapons, which must have been withdrawn according to the Minsk agreements, are being used,” the ministry stated.
A top military spokesman in Kyiv reported the death of one soldier and the injury of another in the Russian-speaking provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk.
The two sides reported the death of at least 10 soldiers and civilians on Monday (17 August) – the bloodiest 24-hour span in more than a month – sparking international condemnation and fears of a return to all-out war.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “seriously alarmed” by Monday’s death toll.
The clashes concluded a restless week in the former Soviet nation, that saw the number of rocket and heavy artillery fire exchanges escalate sharply, seemingly without explanation.
The militias have been trying to seize a road linking their capital, Donetsk, with Mariupol — a southeastern port held by the government and responsible for exporting much of the industrial region’s factory output.
Mariupol also provides a land bridge between eastern rebel territories and the Crimea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in March 2014.
But Monday’s deaths were reported in strikes across the war zone.
The worrying development sparked a new diplomatic flare-up between Moscow – which firmly denies either arming or funding the revolt – and Western powers who want to prop up Kyiv’s new pro-European leaders against what they view as Russian aggression.
“There can be no mistake as to who is responsible – Russia and the separatists are launching these attacks, just as they escalated the conflict last August,” US State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
He appeared to be referring to Ukraine’s loss of hundreds of soldiers who were surrounded by a far more heavily-armed militia force in the eastern town of Ilovaysk a year ago.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the recent rise of attacks signalled the imminent launch of a Kyiv offensive on the separatist-controlled regions.
“We are concerned by the course of events in recent days which very strongly resembles the preparation for more military action,” Lavrov said.
NATO expressed similar concerns ““We are extremely concerned about the recent escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine,” Deputy Spokesperson Carmen Romero told EURACTIV.
“We continue to follow the situation very closely. We call on all sides to uphold their responsibility to work for peace and avoid further destabilisation,” she added.
Separatist attacks have often dropped off in the wake of Western condemnation of Russia — which allegedly directs most rebel campaigns – as it faces the threat of even sterner economic sanctions.
The United Nations believes the conflict – sparked by the February 2014 toppling of a Moscow-backed leadership – has killed more than 6,800 people and driven 1.4 million from their homes.
The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine gave their support to a deal to end fighting in eastern Ukraine, following 17-hour long negotiations in the Belarussian capital Minsk on 12 February.
The four leaders committed to respecting Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, according to a joint declaration.
Western leaders are closely observing the implementation of the Minsk agreement.
On 2 March, European leaders said that they agreed that the OSCE needed a broader role as observers of the ceasefire, and weapons removal.
Ukraine has asked the EU to dispatch an EU-led Security and Defence (CSDP) mission to Donbas.