Ukraine's President, Petro Poroshenko, has said that his nation’s conflict with Russia was “escalating” after a column of 32 tanks, 30 lorries and 16 heavy artillery pieces was reported to have entered the separatist-controlled eastern region of Luhansk.
A Nato military officer told Reuters he had seen an increase in Russian troops and equipment along the Ukraine border, and was investigating the report of tanks entering the breakaway region.
Hundreds have been killed since a ceasefire was signed in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, on 5 September, and one Ukrainian commander described it as less a step towards peace than a “strategic pause”. The arrival of the tanks, said to be heading south towards the town of Krasny Luch, suggests the pause may not endure much longer. Fighting is reported every day from Luhansk and Donetsk.
Yesterday’s alleged tank invasion, reported by a Ukrainian defence spokesman, came a day after the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, summoned security chiefs to discuss the situation; no new moves were announced afterwards.
The incursion also follows a poll in which residents of the disputed south-east of Ukraine voted heavily in favour of a pro-Russian leader for the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic. President Poroshenko denounced the election as “a farce” and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s new foreign policy chief, called it “an obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine”.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Russia quickly announced that it would “respect” the election result, and said the newly elected leaders have a “mandate” to negotiate a peace agreement with the government in Kiev. But a spokesman for the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the Russian reaction was “incomprehensible”, and ruled out the early lifting of sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea in March. Kiev’s angry reaction to the elections and the reported incursion of new Russian heavy weaponry increased fears that the ceasefire could now be discarded entirely. Kiev is particularly worried that the separatists may be preparing to launch new attacks into what remains of Kiev-held Ukraine, perhaps blasting a corridor across the country to enable it to supply Crimea, which is reachable from Russia only by ferry.
The only country so far to recognise the result of Sunday’s elections in Donetsk and Luhansk is the tiny region of South Ossetia, on the Russian border with Georgia; it was the focus of a brief but fierce war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 which Georgia lost. In another indication of the growing tensions across what Moscow calls its “near-abroad”, Georgia’s pro-western ruling coalition suffered a blow when a number of ministers, including Maia Panjikidze, the foreign minister, resigned.
The exodus followed the launch of a corruption investigation into the defence minister Irakli Alanasia, who resigned and pulled his party, the Free Democrats, out of the government, protesting that the investigation was politically motivated.
Mikheil Saakashvili, who led Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” in 2003 and did much to implant democracy in the country, warned this week that Georgia could once again fall into Russia’s grasp. President Putin, he told the US business magazine Forbes, “has a very specific plan and he is not trying to hide this: restoring the Soviet Union in some new form and joining territories directly with Russia”.
Russia had worked “day and night” to destabilise Georgia, he said, although most of what it was doing “was never announced [by the Georgian government]” for fear that doing so would “stop investments from coming”.
Mr Saakashvili, who lives in self-imposed exile in New York after Georgian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest for “exceeding official powers”, claims his country is now in the hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire oligarch who became Prime Minister in 2012 but has since retreated to his 108,000 sq ft compound in the mountains overlooking the capital, Tbilisi.
Mr Saakashvili claimed Mr Ivanishvili was behind the legal cases against him, because “he has other duties and responsibilities… of course to Putin… He will definitely do everything that he [Putin] wants… He had huge backing from the Russians.”
But Professor Neil Macfarlane, a Georgia expert with Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London, said Mr Saakashvili had produced no evidence that the billionaire was acting in Russia’s interests. And he denied that the departure of the western-leaning ministers from Georgia’s government was a sign that the country’s allegiance to the west was weakening.
“It’s all to do with domestic politics,” he told The Independent. “People have been wondering how long it would take for the coalition to fragment: it’s a collection of groups and parties with different interests and rivalries and I never understood how it hung together. There is still unanimous support in parliament for Georgia’s western orientation. This is a tempest in a teapot: the good thing is that it’s happened without any blood being spilt. It’s domestic and regrettable, but it’s the sort of thing that happens in non-totalitarian regimes.”
Given the fragile state of the whole region, he said, “Georgia did not need [this political crisis]… We need to wait and see what it means.
“What we shouldn’t do,” he concluded, “is throw up our hands and say the Georgians are Russian stooges… We should back the government.”