War games fuel fears of Russian push into Ukraine

Rebels call for Moscow’s help as Ukraine forces tighten hold on eastern regions

Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint near  Debaltseve in the Donetsk region yesterday. Government forces have recaptured an important railway hub from pro-Russian rebels, an  official in Kiev said yesterday. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint near Debaltseve in the Donetsk region yesterday. Government forces have recaptured an important railway hub from pro-Russian rebels, an official in Kiev said yesterday. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

 

Russia’s military has started a new round of war games near Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels are calling for urgent help from the Kremlin as Kiev’s forces bear down on their strongholds.

The separatists reject Kiev’s new pro-western government and want eastern Ukraine to be ruled by Moscow, but they are increasingly isolated in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk as they struggle to maintain supply lines to Russia.

Moscow denies allowing fighters and heavy weapons to cross into Ukraine, and rejects claims that rebels used one of its Buk missiles to bring down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on July 17th, killing all 298 people on board.

Russia also dismisses allegations that it is shelling Ukrainian army positions, despite US satellite evidence and apparently incriminating posts placed on social media sites by Russian servicemen near the frontier.

But as Kiev’s troops encircle Donetsk and Luhansk and intensify shelling of rebel positions – killing dozens of civilians – separatist hopes and government fears rise of possible direct military intervention by Russia.

Stark choice

Vladimir Putin

“Of course it would be great to see Russian peacekeepers here: strong artillery units, tank brigades,” said the self- declared “people’s governor” of Donetsk, Pavel Gubarev. “This war would be over in a day, maybe two.”

It was only the latest appeal to the Kremlin from rebel leaders who insist the support they receive from Moscow is mostly political and “moral”.

In reality, the insurgents are using tanks, armoured personnel carriers and surface- to-air missiles brought across stretches of the Russia- Ukraine border that they control, and Nato and the US say Moscow is again massing forces near the frontier.

The Russian military said yesterday it was starting exercises near Ukraine involving more than 100 aircraft, including fighter jets and bombers, which would feature missile- launch drills and test firing against land and air targets.

Clashes Russian officers insist the exercises are routine, but they come amid fierce clashes near the border which Moscow claims have seen Ukrainian rockets land on Russian territory, killing at least one person. Russia said more than 400 Ukrainian soldiers fled across the frontier yesterday to escape the fighting.

Russian officials and state media say that what Kiev calls an “anti-terrorist” operation against Moscow-backed militants is actually a “punitive operation” by Ukrainian “fascists” against peaceful Russian-speakers who oppose Kiev’s ruling “junta”.

This depiction of Ukraine’s crisis has rallied Russian public support for the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk and for Mr Putin, while demonising Ukraine’s new leaders and their US and EU supporters. In this context, Mr Putin could easily convince his people of the need for an armed “humanitarian” or “peacekeeping” mission in eastern Ukraine.

Western capitals hope escalating sanctions against Russia will persuade its business elite to exercise a restraining hand on Mr Putin – and help persuade him to act in the interests of his “oligarch” allies rather than heed his bellicose nationalist acolytes.

But Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire friend of Mr Putin who has been targeted by sanctions, said there would be no split between Russian big business and the Kremlin.

“There can be no compromise here. It would not even cross our minds to discuss the issue,” he said.