Ukraine has relaunched a crackdown on pro-Russian rebels in a move Moscow suggested was backed by Washington but opposed by major European leaders.
Kiev's forces struck at separatist positions with fighter jets and artillery yesterday after President Petro Poroshenko decided on Monday night not to extend a 10-day ceasefire that failed to quell fighting in eastern Ukraine.
“The unique chance to implement the peace plan was not realised…because of the militants’ criminal actions,” Mr Poroshenko said.
He insisted, however, that he was ready to renew a ceasefire if rebels met his demands to disarm, release prisoners, allow international monitors into the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and relinquish checkpoints on the border with Russia.
Government forces claimed to have retaken at least one border crossing into Russia and several small settlements last night.
Ukrainian interior ministry spokesman Zoryan Shkiryak advised people in the partly rebel-held regions not to go on the streets or near windows, and not to associate with militants, who might use them as "human shields".
Over the course of the ceasefire, which Mr Poroshenko extended once, 27 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and some 69 were injured, according to officials.
The rebels – whom Kiev and its western allies say are being reinforced by fighters and advanced weapons crossing the porous border from Russia – accused government troops of repeatedly breaking the supposed truce.
On Monday night Mr Poroshenko took part in the latest of several four-way telephone conversations with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, French president Francois Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Influence from abroad
Hinting at US influence on Mr Poroshenko, Russia’s foreign ministry released a statement yesterday saying “there is an impression that the change in Kiev’s position…could not have come about without influence from abroad, despite the position of leading EU member states”.
Later, Mr Putin said: “Unfortunately President Poroshenko took the decision to restart military operations and we – I mean myself and my European colleagues – could not convince him that the road to stable, strong and long-lasting peace does not lie through war.”
Moscow has repeatedly accused the US of fomenting Ukraine’s uprising and subsequent shift to the West, and of seeking to undermine Russia and its relations with the EU.
Washington is seen as far more willing to impose tougher sanctions on Moscow than the EU.
Mr Putin also accused Washington of using “blackmail” against Paris to press it into scrapping a warship sale to Russia in exchange for easing US pressure on French banks; the US has fined BNP Paribas bank €6.5 billion for helping countries evade sanctions.