Ukraine calls for Western help to quell escalating frontline
The end of the fighting agreed to last July raised hopes of a resolution to the bitter trench warfare started in 2014 by the annexation of Crimea by the Kremlin.
But after the longest truce since the start of the war, eight Ukrainian servicemen have been killed in clashes with separatist fighters since mid-February, and the separatists announced on Friday that three of theirs had been shot.
“We have seen an escalation of the conflict in recent weeks,” Ukrainian president’s office chief Andriy Yermak said on Friday.
Yermak, who was speaking via video link at a conference organized by the Brussels-based European Policy Center think tank, blamed the rise in violence in Moscow.
He urged Western peace officers, including France, Germany and the United States, to “redouble their efforts” to resolve the conflict.
Observers say the latest escalation could be a Kremlin response to Ukrainian sanctions imposed by President Volodymyr Zelensky against a powerful pro-Russian lawmaker and close ally of Vladimir Putin last month.
“Russia is putting pressure on Kiev, including threatening to expand the scale of the aggression,” Oleksandr Lytvynenko, director of the Kyiv National Institute for Strategic Studies, told AFP.
Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of sending troops and weapons to support the separatists, Moscow says denies.
Kiev blamed the recent clashes on Moscow and the separatist leaders, and accused them of using banned military equipment.
Heavy weapons such as tanks and large-caliber mortars are banned under the so-called Minsk II agreement that was signed in February 2015 to settle the conflict.
Humanitarian groups providing aid to the war-torn Donetsk and Lugansk regions have confirmed that the situation in the conflict zone has deteriorated.
“We had to postpone some of our trips because of the bombing in the evening,” Florence Gillette, head of the Red Cross delegation in Ukraine told AFP in February, adding that it was a first for months. .
The Kremlin for its part earlier this week blamed Ukrainian forces for the escalation and said it was “deeply concerned about growing tensions” on the front lines.
“We are seeing more and more bombings on the Ukrainian side,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, calling on Kiev to adhere to agreements to end the war.
He urged “all who can” to use their influence to avoid another full-fledged war.
European Council chief Charles Michel said during a visit to Ukraine this week that the EU did not intend to lift economic sanctions against Russia for its role in the conflict.
He said Russia had not reciprocated Ukraine’s “positive steps” to end the war, and described Moscow as “a party to this conflict, not a mediator.”
The fierce fighting has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2014, but the number of new deaths has declined in recent years.
However, tensions between the two neighboring countries remain high.
Ukraine last month imposed sanctions on Viktor Medvedchuk, a 66-year-old close ally of Putin, accusing him of “terrorist financing” because of his business in Russia.
For Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to Ukraine and analyst at the Brookings Institution, this decision could have precipitated the rise in recent violence.
“Now it looks like the Kremlin is pushing things up. This could be due to Moscow’s dissatisfaction with the sanctions against Medvedchuk,” Pifer told AFP.
However, he played down warnings that the parties could resume a full-fledged war.
“What would Moscow gain? It could perhaps seize a little more Ukrainian territory, at the risk of making Russian victims and more severe Western sanctions”, he declared.