BRUSSELS/DONETSK: President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Russia was sending an aid convoy to eastern Ukraine, despite urgent Western warnings against using humanitarian help as a pretext for an invasion.
While Ukraine reported that Russia had massed 45,000 troops on its border, NATO said there was a “high probability” that Moscow could intervene militarily in the country’s east, where Kiev forces are closing in on pro-Russian separatists.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso delivered a blunt message in a telephone call with Putin on Monday. “President Barroso warned against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian,” the Commission said in a statement.
The Kremlin said it had made it clear to Barroso that Moscow would indeed send help to largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
“It was noted that the Russian side, in collaboration with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, is sending an aid convoy to Ukraine,” the Kremlin statement said, without saying when the convoy was going.
U.N. agencies say more than 1,100 people have been killed, including government forces, rebels and civilians, in the four months since rebels seized territory in the east and Kiev launched its crackdown.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he supported an aid mission but made clear it had to be an international effort under the aegis of the Red Cross, involving the European Union as well as Russia. Poroshenko said U.S. President Barack Obama had also backed the international plan when they spoke on the telephone on Monday.
The past week has seen increasingly urgent warnings from Kiev and Western countries that Moscow appears to be planning an invasion. Western countries say Putin – who has whipped up the passions of Russians with a relentless nationalist campaign in state-controlled media since annexing Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March – could invade to head off a humiliating rebel defeat.
Kiev said it was in the “final stages” of recapturing the eastern city of Donetsk – the main base of the separatist rebels – in a battle that could mark a turning point in a conflict that has caused the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
An industrial metropolis with a prewar population of nearly 1 million, Donetsk rocked to shells and gunfire over the weekend, and heavy guns boomed through the night into Monday from the city’s outskirts.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there was no sign Russia had withdrawn the troops it had massed at the Ukrainian frontier. Asked in a Reuters interview how he rated the chances of Russian military intervention, Rasmussen said: “There is a high probability.”
“We see the Russians developing the narrative and the pretext for such an operation under the guise of a humanitarian operation, and we see a military build-up that could be used to conduct such illegal military operations in Ukraine,” he said.
NATO believes any Russian humanitarian mission would be used as a pretext to save the rebels, who are fighting for control of two provinces under the banner of “New Russia,” a term Putin has used for southern and eastern Ukraine, where mostly Russian is spoken.
Ukraine appears to be pressing ahead with its offensive, undeterred by the presence of what NATO says are about 20,000 Russian troops massed on the nearby border for a potential ground invasion.
Kiev put the size of the Russian forces much higher. “As of 11 o’clock today, about 45,000 troops of the armed forces and internal forces of the Russian Federation are concentrated in border areas,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told a briefing.
He said they were supported by 160 tanks, 1,360 armored vehicles, 390 artillery systems, up to 150 Grad missile launchers, 192 fighter aircraft and 137 attack helicopters.
Kiev has said in recent days that it succeeded in using diplomacy to prevent Russia from launching a ground invasion to protect the rebels under the guise of a humanitarian mission. Moscow announced Friday it was ending war games in the area.
Lysenko said clashes had taken place in several parts of eastern Ukraine over the past 24 hours, resulting in six Ukrainian service members’ being killed and big losses to the rebel side. Rebel losses could not be independently confirmed.
Municipal authorities in Donetsk said artillery shelling knocked out power stations in the city and hit a high-security prison, killing one inmate and allowing more than 100 criminals to escape.