Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged his Ukrainian counterpart not to escalate an offensive against pro-Moscow rebels, and threatened economic retaliation for signing a trade accord with the European Union.
At the leaders’ first meeting since June, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko replied by demanding a halt to arms shipments from Russia to the separatist fighters.
The pair shook hands at the start of talks in the Belarussian capital Minsk, only hours after Kiev said it had captured Russian soldiers engaged in a “special mission” on Ukrainian territory.
A day after announcing that it had detained 10 Russian paratroopers who crossed the border in a column of armed infantry vehicles, Ukraine released video of its captives.
In footage posted on the official Facebook page of the Ukrainian government’s “anti-terrorist operation”, the men were shown dressed in camouflage fatigues. One of them, who identified himself as Ivan Milchakov, listed his personal details, including the name of his paratroop regiment, which he said was based in the Russian town of Kostroma.
“I did not see where we crossed the border. They just told us we were going on a 70km [45 mile] march over three days,” he said in the video. “Everything is different here, not like they show it on television. We’ve come as cannon fodder.”
Another man in the footage, who gave his name as Sergeant Aleksei Generalov, said: “Stop sending in our boys. Why? This is not our war.”
Social media accounts belonging to several of the men showed them in camouflage or paratroop uniform.
Russian news agencies quoted a Defence Ministry source as confirming that Russian servicemen had crossed into Ukraine but saying they did so inadvertently. “The soldiers really did participate in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossed it by accident on an unmarked section, and as far as we understand showed no resistance to the armed forces of Ukraine when they were detained,” the source said.
Ukraine rejected that explanation. “This wasn’t a mistake, but a special mission they were carrying out,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a televised briefing.
Moscow has long denied charges by Kiev that it has been sending weapons and fighters to help the separatists in eastern Ukraine. The United States and European Union have backed Kiev by imposing sanctions on Moscow in a standoff that has prompted both Russia and Nato to step up military manoeuvres.
Mr Putin said: “We are convinced that today, [the Ukraine crisis] cannot be solved by further escalation of the military scenario without taking into account vital interests of the south-eastern regions of the country and without a peaceful dialogue with its representatives.”
Video: Ukraine and Russia hold peace talks
He said the Russian economy could lose about 100bn roubles (£1.6bn) if European goods reached its markets via Ukraine after Kiev signed the trade deal with the EU in June. Moscow would retaliate with trade measures if that were to happen, Mr Putin added.
Mr Poroshenko responded by defending a peace plan he issued in June, when the rebels in the southeast Donbas region scorned his invitation to lay down their arms and leave by a safe corridor.
“The prime condition for a stabilisation of the situation in Donbas is the establishment of effective control over the Russian-Ukrainian border. It is vital to do everything to stop deliveries of equipment and arms to the fighters,” he said.
More than 2,000 people have been killed since April in the fighting, but the Ukrainian army has now largely pinned the rebels down in two eastern strongholds.
Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, and the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan were also taking part in the Minsk meeting.
Mr Poroshenko pointedly mentioned the other participants by name in his opening remarks, but not Mr Putin, referring only to “the presence of the leadership of the Russian Federation”.