Nato tells Russia to halt ‘illegal’ actions in Ukraine

Europe considers more sanctions after Nato says Moscow has sent troops and weaponry into Ukraine to assist pro-Russian insurgents.

Ukrainian troops with an armoured vehicle near Debaltseve, in the eastern Donetsk region, on August 29, 2014. Gleb Garanich  / Reuters
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BRUSSELS // Nato told Russia on Friday to halt its illegal military actions in Ukraine after the West accused Moscow of direct involvement in the separatist uprising.

Fears of a wider confrontation rose after Nato said Russia had sent troops to fight in Ukraine and funnelled huge amounts of heavy weaponry to pro-Kremlin rebels.

Germany warned the crisis was spiralling out of control as European Union foreign ministers met to discuss further punitive measures against Moscow.

“This is not an isolated action, but part of a dangerous pattern over many months to destabilise Ukraine as a sovereign nation,” Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after an emergency meeting of the alliance.

“We urge Russia to cease its illegal military actions, stop its support to armed separatists and take immediate and verifiable steps towards de-escalation of this grave crisis.”

Kiev and the West have accused Russian troops of being behind a lightning counter-offensive in which the rebels have seized swaths of south-eastern territory from government forces, dramatically turning the tide in the four-month conflict.

And in a move certain to anger Kiev’s former masters in Moscow, Mr Rasmussen said Nato was not closing the door to Ukraine’s possible membership of the alliance after the government said it was taking steps to join.

The Russian president Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied that Moscow is fuelling the conflict or has any troops on the ground in the former Soviet state.

He demanded yesterday that the Ukrainian government hold talks with the separatists who took up arms against Kiev in April, apparently emboldened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea the month before.

“I believe that what is happening in Ukraine right now is in principle our common colossal tragedy and it is necessary to do everything for it to stop as soon as possible,” he said.

Nato said on Thursday Russia had sent at least 1,000 troops to fight alongside the rebels, along with air defence systems, artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles, and had massed 20,000 troops near the border.

The new rebel advance has raised fears that the Kremlin could be seeking to create a land corridor between Russia and Crimea on the Black Sea.

Residents of Mariupol, a strategic government-held port on the Azov Sea south of the main insurgent bastion of Donetsk, were fleeing yesterday after rebels seized several villages near by.

The sharp escalation came just days after Mr Putin held talks with Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko but failed to make any significant breakthrough.

“Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the new images of Russian forces inside Ukraine make that plain for the world to see,” the US president Barack Obama said.

“This ongoing Russian incursion into Ukraine will only bring more costs and consequences for Russia.”

The United States and the EU have already imposed a series of punishing sanctions on Moscow in the worst standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

EU foreign ministers were meeting in Milan yesterday to propose new sanctions against Russia for consideration at a summit of the bloc’s 28 heads of state today in Brussels.

“We have to be aware of what we are facing: we are now in the midst of the second Russian invasion of Ukraine within a year,” said Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt.

“We see regular Russian army units operating offensively on the Ukrainian territory against the Ukrainian army,” Mr Bildt said. “We must call a spade a spade.”

Russia has rejected accusations that it has invaded Ukraine.

Mr Putin yesterday defiantly described the insurgents as defenders of New Russia, a Tsarist-era term for Moscow’s former imperial holdings in the region that the strongman has revived since annexing Crimea.

He praised rebel successes in halting Kiev’s advances in the counter-offensive in the south-east that has left government troops battling for survival in the town of Ilovaysk.

He called on rebel forces to open a “humanitarian corridor” for the besieged Ukrainian troops.

According to new UN figures, almost 2,600 people have been killed since mid-April, and well over 400,000 have fled their homes, many of them to Russia.

The UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the international community had to redouble its efforts to resolve the crisis, and said it was vital general elections in Ukraine go ahead as planned in October.

The International Monetary Fund on Friday approved the release of nearly US$1.4 billion (Dh5.14bn) in fresh funds for Ukraine.

It was the second tranche from the IMF’s programme to help stabilise the economy and its currency, the hryvnia, battered by years of mismanagement and more recently by the separatist uprising.

* Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting by Associated Press