KIEV: Ukrainian forces ceded a strategic eastern airport to pro-Russian insurgents Monday, as the government in Kiev accused Moscow of launching a “great war” that could claim tens of thousands of lives.
Meanwhile, European-mediated talks over the fast-escalating crisis opened in the Belarussian capital Minsk behind closed doors.
The talks were attended by envoys from Ukraine and Russia, as well as the separatists.
The rebels have launched a major counteroffensive in recent days that the Ukrainian government and its Western allies claim is backed by Russian forces. Moscow denies this.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Valeriy Geletey vowed Monday to “immediately mount defenses against Russia, which is trying not only to secure positions held by terrorists before but to advance on other territories of Ukraine.”
“A great war arrived at our doorstep, the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War II,” he wrote on Facebook, warning of “tens of thousands of deaths.”
Russia has “effectively severed its partnership” with Europe and wants to establish a new order, German President Joachim Gauck said.
“We want partnership and good neighborly relations [with Russia]” but on the condition that Moscow changes its policies and that there is a “return to respect for the rights of nations,” Gauck said at a ceremony in Gdansk to mark the 75th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland, which sparked World War II.
Russian agencies quoted rebel representatives demanding at the Belarus meeting that Kiev provide the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk with a “unique procedure” that would let them integrate closer with Russia.
The developments come a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated for the first time that the issue of “statehood” should be brought up in talks on the crisis in the east, where fighting has killed over 2,600 people since mid-April.
Putin accused Europe of ignoring the Ukrainian military’s “direct targeting” of civilians in the conflict and said the offensive pushed by insurgents there was simply an attempt to expel Kiev’s forces from residential areas.
Kiev said its forces south of the rebel hub of Luhansk had been forced to retreat from the local airfield and a nearby village after coming under artillery fire and battling a Russian tank battalion.
“There is direct, overt aggression against Ukraine from the neighboring state,” Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko said.
The retreat marked the latest setback for Ukrainian troops, which had been closing in on rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk until about a week ago, when the insurgents opened a new front in the south.
Since then, the rebels’ lightning offensive has forced Ukrainian army units to abandon numerous positions and get ready to defend the southeast, including the important port city of Mariupol, which had been peaceful for months after government troops routed the rebels in May.
AFP correspondents said the presence of Ukrainian army in the region had visibly decreased in recent days.
“The town is being erased off the face of the earth,” said Yelena Proidak, a resident of Petrovske, a town between Donetsk and Lugansk. “There is no normal life here.”
On the Azov Sea coast, where the Kiev government still controls Mariupol, a city of 500,000 people, rocket launchers were used to fire on two Ukrainian patrol boats about 5 kilometers from the shore. Two border guards from one of the crews went missing, Kiev said.
A senior Ukrainian security official told AFP on condition of anonymity that Russia’s goal was to “destabilize [Ukraine] and create a land corridor to Crimea,” the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Moscow in March but connected to Russia only by an old and overloaded ferry link.
Kiev and the West have repeatedly accused Russia of direct involvement in Ukraine.
NATO said last week that Russia had more than 1,000 troops deployed in Ukraine and 20,000 massed along the border.
Rights activists in Moscow told AFP that up to 15,000 Russian soldiers had been sent across the Ukrainian border over the past two months. Kiev’s security spokesman Andriy Lysenko has estimated the current number or Russian troops at 1,600.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said ahead of the Western military alliance’s two-day summit in Wales that opens Thursday that the growing Russian threat meant the alliance must create a bigger presence in eastern Europe.
“We must face the reality that Russia … considers NATO an adversary,” he told reporters. “We cannot afford to be naive.”
Kiev has asked NATO for help and Poroshenko is expected to travel to Wales and meet with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Russia has repeatedly denied helping the insurgency, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared Monday that “there will be no military intervention [in Ukraine].”
Lavrov also called for an “immediate and unconditional cease-fire” to be discussed in Minsk.