Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to prevent the defeat of allied separatists in eastern Ukraine while clinging to his insistence that Russia hasn't been involved in the deadly, 7-month-old conflict.
In an interview with Germany's ARD television, Putin repeated his claim that ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine are in danger of repression by a Kiev leadership he suggested was plotting to oust them en route to creating a fascist state.
"We are very concerned about any possible ethnic cleansings and Ukraine ending up as a neo-Nazi state," Putin said, according to the Kremlin news service account of the interview. "What are we supposed to think if people are bearing swastikas on their sleeves? Or what about the SS emblems that we see on the helmets of some military units now fighting in eastern Ukraine?"
Russian media routinely portray extremist fringe as typical of the supporters who have brought Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and a European-oriented parliament to power.
Putin told the German broadcaster that both the pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government troops had failed to honor a Sept. 5 cease-fire but blamed Kiev for reigniting the conflict that has taken more than 4,000 lives.
"You want the Ukrainian central authorities to annihilate everyone there, all of their political foes and opponents?" Putin asked the interviewer. "Is that what you want? We certainly don't. And we won't let it happen."
Putin dodged the question of where the separatists were getting their heavy artillery and other weapons.
"Nowadays people who wage a fight and consider it righteous will always get weapons," Putin said.
Fighting has intensified in eastern Ukraine since voters in both government- and rebel-held territory held elections over the last month. Ukrainians elected a Supreme Council dominated by lawmakers committed to aligning with Europe instead of Russia and to recovering the territory now under separatist control. The rebels also elected leaders of the insurgency in a Nov. 2 vote that was widely condemned by the international community as illegal.
Six Ukrainian soldiers died in the fighting around Donetsk region over the previous 24 hours, Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council told a daily press briefing in Kiev. He said about 20 had been killed on the separatists' side, but a report from the purported Donetsk government mentioned only one civilian killed in the previous day's fighting.
The ARD interview followed a rough week for Putin on the international scene. During the Beijing summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Council and a gathering of the Group of 20 industrialized nations in Brisbane, Australia, the Kremlin leader was confronted with criticism of his annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and support for the separatist insurgents.
Capping the Australia summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists at a press conference that sanctions will be retained on Russia until they have the intended effect of bringing the country back into compliance with international law and treaties.
"Who would have thought that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the end of the Cold War and the end of the world's separation into two blocs, something like this could have happened in the middle of Europe?" she said. "Old ways of thinking in spheres of influence, which spurn international law, must not become accepted."
Unchecked regional conflicts can quickly flare into "major fires," Merkel warned.
"It's not only about Ukraine. It's about Moldova. It's about Georgia," she said, referring to two other countries where Russian troops occupy and control territory and could inspire other states to emulate Russia's aggressive behavior.
Russia has also been engaging in provocative incursions into the national maritime and airspace zones of its neighbors, tripling the number of incidents this year compared to 2013 that spurred NATO and Nordic countries to scramble fighter jets to ward off intruders. On Monday, F-16s belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization took flight to intercept a Russian Su-27 jet that had approached the national airspace of Latvia, a former Soviet republic now a member of NATO.
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