DONETSK, Ukraine — Ukraine’s interior minister claimed Thursday that an armored column from Russia had crossed the border into eastern Ukraine overnight and had fought with Ukrainian troops during the day.
Russia did not immediately respond to the minister’s allegation, and there was no independent confirmation that an incursion had taken place.
If it did, the event would signal a significant escalation in the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatist militias have seized government buildings in several cities and have resisted government troops sent to restore control.
Russia is widely believed to be supporting and aiding the separatist militias, and significant numbers of men who describe themselves as volunteer fighters have crossed into Ukraine from Russia. But the precise role Russia has played in the violence in the east has been hard to discern.
The Ukrainian interior minister, Arsen Avakov, told reporters in Kiev, the capital, that the armored column included three tanks, as well as armored personnel carriers and armored cars, and had traversed the border at a separatist-controlled crossing.
A video posted online appeared to show a tank, spewing exhaust, clanking down a street in Snizhne, a town about midway between Donetsk, a provincial capital controlled by separatists, and the Russian frontier. Reuters reported that two of its journalists saw the tanks in Snizhne but could not establish where they had come from; separatists on the scene said the tanks had been taken from a Ukrainian military warehouse. Late Thursday, photographs that circulated online were said to show the tanks on a boulevard in Donetsk.
The pro-Russian militias are known to have armored personnel carriers that were seized from Ukrainian forces, but they have not previously been known to possess any tanks.
After Mr. Avakov’s news conference, Ukraine’s newly elected President Petro Poroshenko phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin to object to the incursion, Poroshenko spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko said. He wrote on his Facebook page that Mr. Poroshenko had told Mr. Putin that allowing tanks to cross into his country was “unacceptable.”
Putin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov told the Itar-Tass news agency that the two leaders spoke, but he made no mention of the Ukrainian accusation. He said Mr. Poroshenko congratulated Mr. Putin on the occasion of Russia Day, a national holiday celebrated annually on June 12, and then “informed Putin about his plan for a settlement in the southeast of Ukraine.”
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of deliberately allowing men and weapons to cross the two countries’ porous border, allegations that Russia has denied. Last week, Ukrainian officials said Russia had allowed armored vehicles to cross the border at Marinovka; it later turned out that separatists had been operating near the border but had not attacked across it.
At his news conference Thursday, Mr. Avakov told reporters: “We observed three tanks, which, according to our information, crossed the border and were in Snizhne by morning. After this, two of them moved toward Horlivka,” a town farther west. “They were attacked by our forces,” he said. “A battle is underway.”
The tanks and other armored vehicles crossed “despite the Russian Federation’s statements that it welcomes the peace process, and that the order had been given to strengthen border patrols,” Mr. Avakov said.
Russia has raised its own allegations against Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained Tuesday that the Ukrainian army had not halted operations in the east, even though talks meant to achieve a cease-fire were underway among Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Whether tanks actually crossed the border or not, the allegation that they had done so was a setback for the talks.
Mr. Poroshenko has said he was prepared to allow Russian fighters in Ukraine to return to Russia safely, to grant amnesty to local militants not accused of grave crimes and to discuss giving regional governments more power and autonomy, but that he would not negotiate with armed separatists.
Violence continued Thursday evening in the east. At least seven people were wounded after a car bomb exploded outside the regional administration building that is the headquarters of the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk, in the city center. Local news media reported that the blast was an assassination attempt on a separatist leader, Denis Pushilin, but that he was unharmed. If that was the motive, it would be the second attempt on his life in two weeks, either because of internecine fighting among separatist groups, or between them and Ukrainian nationalist organizations backed by the government in Kiev.
Russia signaled Thursday that it would keep up its economic pressure on Ukraine. Alexei B. Miller, head of the giant Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, said in televised remarks that Russia would not extend a deadline for Ukraine to pay $1.95 billion for natural gas beyond 10 a.m. Monday.Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Ukraine - Vladimir Putin - Russia government - Sergey Lavrov - Kiev - Donetsk - Petro Poroshenko