Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels on Thursday as they closed in on the separatists’ military stronghold in the east, and Russia launched army drills near the border in response, raising fears its troops would invade.
The Ukrainian offensive amounts to the first time Kiev’s troops have used lethal force to recapture territory from the fighters, who have seized swathes of eastern Ukraine since April 6 and proclaimed an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk.”
Ukraine’s acting president accused Moscow of supporting “terrorism at the state level” against his country for backing the rebels, who the government blames for kidnapping and torturing a politician found dead on Saturday.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said its forces backed by the army had removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk.
“During the armed clash up to five terrorists were eliminated,” it said in a statement, adding that one person had been wounded on the side of the government forces.
The Kremlin, which says it has the right to invade its neighbor to protect Russian speakers, has built up an estimated 40,000 forces on Ukraine’s border.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Moscow had launched military drills near the border in response to “Ukraine’s military machine” and NATO exercises in eastern Europe. Kiev demanded an explanation within 48 hours of action on the border.
Russia already seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month after President Vladimir Putin overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy by announcing the right to use military force in neighboring countries.
An invasion of mainland Ukraine’s industrial heartland would be a far more serious action. It had seemed beyond contemplation only weeks ago, but now looks like a real threat, although the full extent of Putin’s territorial ambitions remains a mystery.
Under an accord signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and European Union in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups are supposed to disarm and go home, including the rebels occupying about a dozen buildings in the largely Russian-speaking east.
The rebels have shown no sign of retreating. President Obama blamed Russia for failing to carry out the Geneva deal and said he was ready to impose new sanctions.