Ukraine’s president accused Russia of a military invasion in the east Thursday and cancelled an official visit to Turkey, as the military said it had lost control of border cities in the south-east in what would be a “second front” in the conflict.
President Petro Poroshenko, who was scheduled to attend the inauguration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and had seven bilateral meetings planned, called off the trip over “the sharp aggravation of the situation in Donetsk.”
“The president must stay in Kiev today,” he said, and called a meeting of the country’s National Security and Defence Council.
Kiev has also called an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council. “The world must provide an assessment of the sharp aggravation of the situation in Ukraine,” the president said.
The military said that it had largely lost control of cities in the country’s south-eastern border region, where Washington has said that Moscow was opening a “second front” in the conflict.
Pro-Russian separatists had taken control of the south-eastern city of Novoazovsk, more than 100 kilometres south of Donetsk, near the Russian border, the national security council said.
The south-eastern cities of Amvrosiivka and Starobeshevo were under the control of the Russian military, it said.
The rebels were advancing towards Mariupol, a key southern port city near the Russian border.
Analysts have said that the shifting Russian focus farther south along the eastern Ukraine-Russia border shows that Moscow intends to invade near Mariupol to secure a land bridge to Crimea, which it seized earlier this year.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki spoke Wednesday of reports of “additional columns of Russian tanks, multiple rocket launchers, and armored vehicles pushing towards communities in south-eastern Ukraine.”
She said the shelling of residential areas in a coastal town between the border and Mariupol were among “incursions” that indicated “a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway.”
The insurgents have claimed that there were about 3,000 to 4,000 Russians fighting alongside them, insisting that they were volunteers including regular soldiers who were on vacation.
“We have never made a secret of the fact that there are many Russians among us,” separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko told Russian TV.
He said they “preferred to not spend their vacation on the beach, but to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers for freedom … they fight alongside us because they see it as their duty.”
Psaki expressed concern over the Russian government’s “unwillingness to tell the truth even as its soldiers are found 30 miles inside Ukraine.”
She said: “Russia is sending its young men into Ukraine but is not telling them where they’re going or telling their parents what they’re doing.”
Earlier Thursday, French President Francois Hollande described the possible presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine as “intolerable and unacceptable” and called on Moscow to “respect the sovereignty of Ukraine” and “stop supporting the separatists.”
“If it is confirmed that Russian troops are present on Ukrainian soil, this would be intolerable and unacceptable,” he said, warning that EU sanctions against Russia “will be maintained, or reinforced, if the escalation continues.”
During a phone call Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for an explanation over developments in Ukraine.
Hollande said Russia’s behaviour “challenges the principles on which our collective security has been founded since the end of the Cold War” and was incompatible with being a 21st century power.
“Russia cannot, at the same time, aspire to be a recognized power of the 21st century and not respect its rules,” he said. “It’s obviously above all up to the Russian president to resolve this contradiction.”
Poroshenko had on Wednesday proposed a road map to solve the conflict, which would involve re-establishing government control over the border with Russia, a bilateral ceasefire and the release of prisoners.
Poroshenko and Putin recently agreed to revive a so-called contact group made up of the Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).