Ukraine accuses pro-Russia rebels of attacking village near border

A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service keeps watch at the Senkivka checkpoint near the border with Belarus and Russia in the Chernihiv region, Ukraine February 16, 2022.

Valentin Ogirenko | Reuters

Ukraine has denied claims by Russian state-controlled media that it launched shells in eastern Ukraine, and accused Moscow-backed rebels of attacking a village in the region.

Russian-controlled media agency RIA claimed on Thursday that Ukrainian forces had shelled territory held by pro-Russian separatists. The two countries currently have a cease fire agreement in place.

In comments to Reuters, the Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation denied that this had taken place. It follows warnings from the US that Moscow could use false claims about the conflict as a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet Thursday that Russian-backed forces had attacked a village in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, damaging civilian infrastructure.

“Ukrainian Stanytsia Luhanska village was shelled with heavy weapons from the occupied territory of the Donbas. Civilian infrastructure damaged,” he tweeted.

“We call on all partners to swiftly condemn this severe violation of Minsk agreements by Russia amid an already tense security situation.”

The reports could be independently verified by CNBC. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recorded multiple shelling incidents in eastern Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday, Reuters reported.

The front between the two sides has long been the scene of low-level fighting and the OSCE has regularly reported violations of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine during the eight-year conflict.

Around 13,000 people have died in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s Duma (parliament) voted on Tuesday to ask President Vladimir Putin to recognize two Moscow-backed breakaway regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine as independent republics.

Both Ukraine’s government and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that such a move would effectively amount to a Russian withdrawal from the Minsk Agreements.

The Minsk Agreements — designed to end a separatist war in eastern Ukraine — were signed by representatives for Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and pro-Russian separatists in 2014 and 2015.

‘False claims’ could precede invasion, US warns

On Wednesday, the US warned of the possible implications of false claims by Russia regarding conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen Russian officials and Russian media plant numerous stories in the press, any one of which could be elevated to serve as a pretext for an invasion,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement on Wednesday.

He also reiterated that Russia’s claims about a partial pullback of its troops from the border had not been verified by the United States.

“We are doing everything we possibly can to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis the Kremlin has needlessly precipitated. But those efforts will be effective only if the Russian Federation is willing to deescalate,” he said. “To be very, very clear, we have not seen that. In fact, we have seen the opposite. In recent weeks, and even in recent days, more Russian forces — not fewer — are at the border, and they are moving, concerningly, into fighting positions.”

A senior Biden administration official told reporters Wednesday night that as many as 7,000 troops have joined those already near the border in recent days, after Western officials accused Moscow of sending “mixed signals” over its position on Ukraine.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Wednesday that “it appears Russia continues their military buildup.”

Thousands of Russian troops began engaging in military drills last week in a move that was widely seen as a display of strength by Moscow. The drills came as Russia amassed more than 100,000 soldiers, tanks, missiles and even fresh blood supplies at the Ukrainian border.

Russia has repeatedly denied it is planning to invade Ukraine, and released video footage on Wednesday which it claimed showed military units returning to their permanent deployments after completing exercises near the border. CNBC has not been able to verify the footage, but multiple Western officials have said that Russia’s troop count at the border is in fact increasing, not decreasing.

Russia has requested several security guarantees from the US and NATO — the world’s most powerful military alliance — over recent weeks, including demands that Ukraine never be permitted to become a member of the organization and that NATO presence in Eastern Europe is scaled back.

Last month, the US delivered a response to Russia’s proposals, repeating previous refusals of those demands. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a press conference on Thursday that Moscow will respond to the US response today, according to state media.

‘Challenging Western Unity’

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday that there had been no evidence of Russian forces leaving the border, noting that intelligence suggested that Moscow was in fact building up more troops and equipment close to Ukraine.

“We will not let out guard down — we will stay vigilant, she said.”

Meanwhile, Britain’s Foreign Minister Liz Truss wrote in The Daily Telegraph newspaper on Thursday that there is “currently no evidence the Russians are withdrawing from border regions near Ukraine.”

“The Russian military build-up shows no signs of slowing,” she added. “We must have no illusions that Russia could drag this out much longer in a brazen ploy to spend weeks more — if not months — subverting Ukraine and challenging Western unity.”

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