Kiev accuses Russia of military incursion before leaders meet

Putin and Poroshenko set for talks with EU officials as Moscow plans second convoy to Ukraine

Patients and relatives gather in a hospital basement after an early-morning shelling that hit the hospital compound in central Donetsk, Ukraine. Photograph: Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

Patients and relatives gather in a hospital basement after an early-morning shelling that hit the hospital compound in central Donetsk, Ukraine. Photograph: Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

Tue, Aug 26, 2014, 01:01

Ukraine has accused Russia of sending military vehicles over the border ahead of today’s planned meeting between the countries’ leaders, as fighting spread in eastern Ukraine and Moscow announced plans to send a second controversial aid convoy to the region.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and Kremlin counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to attend talks in Minsk, along with the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan – both strong Russian allies – and top European Union officials.

It is not clear whether Mr Poroshenko and Mr Putin will hold direct negotiations on the insurgency in parts of eastern Ukraine – which Kiev claims is fomented and armed by Moscow – but hopes for a swift resolution are slim.

“I hope very much that our western colleagues . . . won’t just come with expectations that we will somehow magically solve things for them. That will not work,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday.

He said the talks would focus on trade issues and “facilitate the exchange of opinions” about “efforts to start a political process to settle the political crisis”.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited Kiev on Saturday and is striving to maintain ties between the EU and Russia, warned that the Minsk meeting would not bring “one big breakthrough” but could deliver “a step forward”.

Ukrainian forces are engaged in fierce fighting with pro-Moscow rebels in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions – known collectively as Donbas – and Kiev accused Russian troops of launching an incursion across the porous border yesterday morning.

“This morning there was an attempt by the Russian military in the guise of Donbas fighters to open a new area of military confrontation in the southern Donetsk region,” said military spokesman Andriy Lysenko.

He claimed that a column of 10 tanks, two armoured vehicles and two trucks crossed the frontier and approached the town of Novoazovsk before being confronted by government forces.

Corridor to Crimea

The town is on the Azov Sea close to the major port of Mariupol, and both lie on the main road between the Russian border and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in March. Ukraine has long feared a rebel attempt to seize the strip of land and form a corridor linking Russia with Crimea.

Last night, Col Lysenko said: “What remained of the column that tried to break through on to the road leading to Mariupol was halted and attacked. As a result, two tanks were hit and several members of a sabotage-intelligence group were detained . . . This region is now blocked by Ukrainian troops.”

Government forces claimed to have captured Russian paratroopers during the fighting, on the day news website slon.ru reported the burial in the town of Pskov of at least two Russian paratroopers thought to have been killed in Ukraine. No official explanation of their deaths has been given.

Mr Poroshenko called European Council president Herman van Rompuy to express “his extreme concern about the breaching of Ukraine’s border by Russian armoured vehicles and Russia’s intention to send a so-called ‘humanitarian’ convoy again to Ukraine”. Yesterday the Ukrainian leader dissolved parliament and called snap elections for October 26th.

Pretext to invade

Ukraine accused Russia of launching a “direct invasion” last week when it sent more than 200 military trucks over the border with humanitarian aid for Luhansk, without Kiev’s permission and without the co-operation of the Red Cross.

The convoy returned to Russia without serious incident, but Ukraine fears the trucks could take equipment to the rebels or be caught in an attack – staged or real – which would provide Moscow with a pretext to invade.

Mr Lavrov again denied Russian military involvement in Ukraine, and said Moscow wanted to dispatch the aid convoy “as soon as possible”.