EUROPE

Amid Russian incursion, Poroshenko says Ukraine ready to defend itself

'No grounds for panic,' Ukrainian leader says following NATO report of fresh Russian columns entering country

Ukraine is ready to defend itself against attack amid reports that Russia had again sent columns of troops and military hardware across their shared border, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Friday.

“There are no grounds for panic,” Poroshenko said at a meeting in Kiev with heads of security and law enforcement forces, according to the statement posted on the official presidential website. “In two recent months, we have elaborated and implemented serious steps on the preparation of our armed forces and other units to defend Ukraine."

Poroshenko was referring to the period since a cease-fire was negotiated between his government and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Both sides have repeatedly accused the other of violating the agreement since it was reached Sept. 5 in Minsk, Belarus.

"In case the developments are contrary to the Minsk plan, the armed forces of Ukraine will be able and ready to rebuff," Poroshenko said, adding that his government still preferred to reach a peaceful resolution to the rebellion in the east.

Four Ukrainian servicemen were killed and several wounded Thursday in clashes with the separatists, officials said.

“The fighting here continues every day,” Ukraine airborne trooper Mikhail Kucherenko, who is helping defend the government-held airport in the eastern city of Donetsk, said in a phone interview. “We have not been so lucky this week, having lost several comrades dead and wounded.”

He would not say how many casualties his group had suffered defending the last site held by government troops in the city. But he insisted the separatists' attacks had intensified in recent days.

Several thousand people have been killed in the months-long fighting in eastern Ukraine, which has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes to seek safety elsewhere in Ukraine and in Russia.

On Wednesday, NATO’s top commander accused Russia of sending armored columns and an unspecified number of troops into eastern Ukraine in the preceding two days.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove told reporters during a visit to Bulgaria that Russia was taking advantage of the fact that a sizable portion of the Russia-Ukraine border was controlled by the separatists.

“Forces, money, support, supplies, weapons are flowing back and forth across this border completely at will and that is not a good situation,” Breedlove said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry denied the report.

NATO had previously accused the Russians of moving troops and equipment across the border.

The Russian regular army forces deployed in the Donetsk region fluctuate between 7,000 and 10,000 soldiers, said Yuri Butusov, a top Ukrainian defense expert with close ties to his country’s military high command.

“We observe them to rotate their forces from time to time,” said Butusov, editor of Tsenzor.net, a popular online publication. “They are keeping up their military presence in the region to assist the separatists to continue hold their ground.”

The number of Russian and separatist fighters together doesn't exceed 20,000 and is not sufficient for a massive surprise attack, Butusov said, citing other analysts.

“They may attempt to once again storm the [Donetsk] airport,” he said, “but that is about as much as they are capable of now.” he said.

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