Ukrainian security officials on Tuesday accused Russia of sending more troops and weaponry into eastern Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin's reported boast that he could conquer Kiev in two weeks appeared to signal Kremlin indifference to economic sanctions imposed by the West.
In a weekend phone call with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Putin denied that Russian military forces were in Ukrainian territory when asked to withdraw them, European newspapers reported after Barroso relayed the conversation to European Union leaders at the Brussels summit Saturday.
“‘If I want to, I can take Kiev in a fortnight,” Putin told Barroso, according to Britain’s Daily Mail and the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
A Kremlin aide to the Russian leader criticized the leak of a confidential conversation and insisted that Putin’s words were taken out of context. But presidential advisor Yuri Ushakov didn’t deny that Putin had uttered the bellicose boast.
To have disclosed the details of Putin’s remarks was “incorrect and goes beyond the bounds of diplomatic practices,” Ushakov told the Itar-Tass news agency.
“If that was really done, it looks not worthy of a serious political figure,” Ushakov said. “Irrespective of whether these words were pronounced or not, this quote was taken out of context and had a very different meaning.”
Last week, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization released satellite images of Russian tanks and other armored vehicles rolling into separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine. The Western military alliance also said there were at least 1,000 Russian troops in the area when the previously peaceful town of Novoazovsk was overrun a week ago. The assault opened a new front in the 5-month-old battle between the pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government forces.
At his daily briefing in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council said more Russian troops had been spotted in the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Convoys flying white flags signaling a humanitarian mission and sporting signs reading “Children” crossed a bridge into the village of Rozdolne, where four trucks approached Ukrainian troops, Lysenko said.
“Armed people jumped out of the trucks and opened fire at Ukrainian servicemen,” Lysenko said. “Large-scale combat started.”
He said 15 Ukrainian soldiers died in fighting over the previous 24 hours, and that 50 pro-Russia gunmen were killed over the same period. News agencies reporting from the multi-front battles in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions carried pictures of wide-scale destruction of Ukrainian armored vehicles and killed or captured government troops. One photograph showed the body of a Ukrainian soldier hanging from power lines, apparently blasted there when a shell hit the armored vehicle he was in near the village of Novokaterynivka.
Russian armed forces continue to build manpower and equipment in the occupied areas, Lysenko said, noting recent encounters between Ukrainian troops and Russian forces in Donetsk, Luhansk and a broad array of smaller towns and villages between the rebel-held city centers and the Sea of Azov.
“According to our operational data, there are no fewer than four [Russian] battalion-tactical groups in Ukraine,” Lysenko said, each comprising about 400 men. He estimated that with the Russian reinforcements, the separatist forces now number 10,000 to 15,000.
The buildup of Russian forces on Ukrainian territory has forced the government to revise its strategy from countering an insurgency to confronting what is now an attack by a foreign invader, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said on his Facebook page.
“This is our Great Patriotic War,” he wrote, alluding to the Soviet Union's costly victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Ukrainian officials fear that the infusion of Russian armed forces into Novoazovsk, gateway to the strategic seaside corridor that runs from the Russian mainland to Crimea, is the first step in a Kremlin campaign to conquer that territory and provide a land bridge to the peninsula, which Russia seized and annexed in March.
Putin sent troops to Ukraine's Crimea region in late February, after the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. The Kremlin ally was toppled after a three-month rebellion sparked by his scrapping of an EU association agreement that had been three years in the making.
Yanukovich vowed to keep Ukraine's economy entwined with Russia's, a policy supported by much of the Russian-speaking eastern region of Ukraine where obsolete heavy industries depend on trade with Russia for survival.
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Sept. 2, 4:32 p.m.: This article has added information about Russian armed forces in Ukraine.