Russia and Ukraine draw nearer to direct conflict

Accusations exchanged over airstrike killing at least four civilians in the town of Snizhne close to their border

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KIEV, Ukraine — Accusations of cross-border hostilities between Ukraine and Russia intensified Tuesday, deepening a shadowy war of real or imagined attacks and sabotage that threatens to draw the two countries into direct conflict.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian military officials said they suspected Russia of carrying out an airstrike that killed at least four civilians in the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, about 12 miles from the border. Pro-Russian separatist rebels, in turn, said the Ukrainian military had carried out the bombing, which destroyed a residential building.

The announcement by Ukraine’s general prosecutor’s office that it was collecting evidence of Russia’s role in the airstrike came a day after the Kiev government said Russia was responsible for the downing of a military transport plane in Luhansk. A day before that, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned of potentially “irreversible consequences” after one man was killed and two other people injured when mortar fire hit the town of Donetsk on the Russian side of the border.

Anatoliy Matios, a deputy general prosecutor, said at a news conference in Kiev that the government intended to document Russia’s involvement in the bombing of the residential building in Snizhne. “It will be proven according to international standards that a neighboring state used military equipment and ammunition,” Mr. Matios said.

While separatists blamed the government for the airstrike, Ukrainian officials insisted that all military flights had been suspended Monday after the downing of a military transport plane in a rocket attack. Russia on Tuesday denied that the rocket that destroyed the plane had been fired from its side of the border.

With the risk of open war between Russia and Ukraine seeming to escalate by the day, the foreign ministers of Ukraine, France and Germany spoke by phone Tuesday morning with the chief of Russia’s presidential administration, Sergei Ivanov, and once again called for a resumption of negotiations by a so-called contact group tasked with brokering a political resolution.

The talks have been stalled for more than 15 days, since before Ukraine‘‍s President Petro Poroshenko called off a unilateral cease-fire, and there was little sign that progress would come quickly. The foreign ministers, with Mr. Ivanvov filling in for Russia’‍s Sergey Lavrov, said they were pushing to arrange a video conference in which negotiators might be able to agree on a location for a meeting.

As the recriminations over the cross-border attacks added new animosity to the long-simmering fight, the death toll continued to mount from the separatist insurrection in eastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian military’s effort to quash the rebellion. At least six more Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 13 injured in overnight fighting throughout the east, Andrei Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said at a news briefing Tuesday.

The self-declared separatist Luhansk People’s Republic said 15 civilians had been killed, and more than 60 injured in bombardments and other fighting throughout the region. That was not including the four civilians killed in the airstrike in Snizhne, which destroyed a five-story apartment building shortly after 6 a.m.

“An unknown plane bombed the town of Snizhne,” Mr. Lysenko said. “Bombs fell directly on downtown streets, on Lenin Street. There is information on dead and wounded local citizens, ruined buildings. We declare that since yesterday, when a rescue operation aimed at finding Ukrainian pilots from downed AN-26 began, planes of the armed forces of Ukraine did not make any flight.” He called the attack “a cynical and bloody provocation in order to discredit the Ukrainian military.”

Ukrainian officials have said the downed cargo plane was flying at a high-enough altitude that destroying it required a more sophisticated surface-to-air missile, provided by Russia. They also said it appeared that the missile had been fired from the Russian side of the border.

Russia denied that accusation Tuesday, saying the plane was shot down too far from the border to have involved a Russian missile, and that the United States should have provided more conclusive evidence from satellite imagery.

“The place where the plane came down is known, and it is far from the Russian border,” said Col. Gen. Yury Solovyov, the ex-commander of Russia’s Special Mission Command, responsible for air defenses, according to the Interfax news service. “Russia has no air defense systems with such a range along the border with Ukraine.”

Col. Solovyov added: “If the Ukrainian claims had been true, the U.S. would have produced space-based information a long time ago indicating that a Russian air defense system shot down the AN-26. Like us, they see things in real time and notice what flies where and who launches what.”

He told Interfax that the Ukrainian plane could have been hit by a Strela-10 surface-to-air missile, which rebels are known to possess.

In Vienna, where Western officials were gathered for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, a senior official — who declined to be identified because he was discussing intelligence reports — said the information on the Ukrainian plane‘‍s downing was inconclusive. The official said that the initial conclusion of some government analysts was that the aircraft had probably been destroyed by Russian surface-to-air missile and not a shoulder-fired antiaircraft system. The official also said that the missile had probably been fired from the Russian side of the border, an assertion that was impossible to verify.

Western officials have generally been quick to support the Ukrainian version of events, and have repeatedly chastised the Kremlin for not doing enough to stop the flow of weapons and fighters across the border into eastern Ukraine.

Part of the Western strategy seems to be to build a case for additional economic sanctions against Russia, but so far the United States and its European allies have failed to move beyond threats to imposing penalties that would target broad sectors of the Russian economy.

While Russia’s support for the separatists is undeniable, senior Russian officials, including President Vladimir V. Putin, have been calling loudly for a peaceful settlement and insisting that there is no basis for additional sanctions. Western business interests — particularly in Europe, which would be more heavily affected than the United States — have lobbied heavily against additional sanctions, fearing lost revenues.

Efforts by the West, including the United States, to isolate Russia for its actions in Ukraine, including the invasion and annexation of Crimea, have largely failed. Since taking Crimea, Russia has sealed a natural gas deal with China, and Putin has been warmly received on a visit through Latin America, including stops in Cuba and Argentina on his way to the World Cup soccer final. Russia is due to hold the next World Cup championship in 2018.

United States - North America - Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Western Europe - Ukraine - Austria - Vienna - Kiev - Ukraine government - Crimea - Sergei Ivanov


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