KIEV/WASHINGTON: U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday stopped short of calling Russia’s military activities in Ukraine an invasion, as western outrage grew over Moscow’s backing of separatist rebels who captured a key coastal town, sharply escalating a 5-month-old separatist war.
Speaking before a National Security Council meeting, he called the latest indications of Russian involvement in Ukraine a continuation of its monthslong backing for separatist rebels, while ruling out the possibility that the U.S. will take military action to address growing violence.
Obama said a military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia in the region “is not in the cards” but vowed to defend NATO members on Ukraine’s borders.
“We are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem,” he said, but added: “Ukraine is not a member of NATO. But a number of those states that are close-by are. And we take our Article 5 commitments to defend each other very seriously.”
Earlier, Ukraine accused Russia of entering its territory with tanks, artillery and troops, and Western powers said Moscow had “outright lied” about its role and dangerously escalated the conflict.
Russia dismissed the allegations, describing the fighters there as “Russian volunteers.”
NATO said at least 1,000 Russian troops are in Ukraine and later released what it said were satellite photos of Russian self-propelled artillery units moving last week.
Two columns of tanks and other equipment entered southeastern Ukraine at midday, following heavy shelling of the area from inside Russia that forced overmatched Ukrainian border guards to flee, said Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s national security council.
“Russian forces have entered Ukraine,” President Petro Poroshenko said in Kiev, canceling a foreign trip and calling an emergency meeting of his security council.
He urged Ukrainians to remain calm. “Destabilization of the situation and panic, this is as much of a weapon of the enemy as tanks,” Poroshenko told the council.
At an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, Western representatives expressed outrage. “Now we see irrefutable evidence of regular Russian forces operating inside Ukraine,” British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said Russia “has manipulated. It has obfuscated. It has outright lied.”
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin offered a spirited defense, saying Kiev “is waging war against its own people.”
He did not deny the Russian presence, saying “there are Russian volunteers in eastern parts of Ukraine. No one is hiding that.” But Power countered: “A Russian soldier who chooses to fight in Ukraine on summer break is still a Russian soldier.”
Churkin questioned the presence of Western advisers and asked where Ukrainian troops were getting weapons. He said he wanted to “send a message to Washington: Stop interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states.” The southeastern town of Novoazovsk, which has come under shelling for three days, appeared to be firmly in the control of separatists, creating a new, third front in the war and raising fears they want to create a land link between Russia and the Crimea Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in March. The town lies along a road connecting Russia to the peninsula.
Lysenko said the missiles from Russia were fired at Ukrainian positions in the southeast about 11 a.m. and an hour and a half later, two columns, including tanks and other fighting vehicles, began an attack.
A senior NATO official said the estimate of 1,000 Russian troops in Ukraine was a conservative one, adding that another 20,000 Russian troops were right over the border. The troops who entered Ukraine had sophisticated equipment.
Brig. Gen. Nico Tak said Russia’s ultimate aim was to stave off a separatist defeat and turn eastern Ukraine into a “frozen conflict” that would destabilize the country indefinitely.