A picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin adorns a urinal at a restaurant in Lviv, Ukraine. (AFP)
Kiev, July 25: Responding to strong advances by the Ukrainian military against insurgents in the week since the downing of a passenger jet, Russia has stepped up its direct involvement in the hostilities in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian and American officials say.
It has unleashed artillery attacks on Ukrainian positions from Russian territory and amassed heavy weapons along the border that could be pushed across to prolong the fighting, they say.
American officials, citing military intelligence, including satellite images, warned that Russia appeared to be preparing to arm the rebels with more high-powered weaponry — including tanks and armoured vehicles — than it had previously supplied.
Among the achievements of the Ukrainian forces was the retaking, following days of intense fighting, of Lysychansk, a rebel stronghold that had posed a strategic obstacle to government troops pressing an advance through the Luhansk region from the north and the west.
The Ukrainian military had called in air support as ground troops struggled to expel the insurgents from the city of more than 100,000, on the right bank of the Seversky Donets river.
The reports of increased hostilities suggest that instead of de-escalating its military intervention in Ukraine in the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines jet’s downing — by a missile the US and Ukraine say was supplied by Russia — Moscow is devoting even more firepower to the cause, despite international condemnation and the imposition of tougher US sanctions. A Nato military officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said by telephone, “The United States has shared intelligence information with Nato today regarding strikes that are occurring from within Russian territory firing into Ukraine territory.”
In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, a military spokesman said today that Ukrainian troops were coming under increased fire from the Russian side of the border and that the Ukrainian military had recently shot down three Russian surveillance drones.
One was used to target a Ukrainian base near the town of Amvrosiivka, which then quickly came under heavy rocket attack, the spokesman said.
The military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said Ukrainian forces were engaged in particularly heavy fighting near a border crossing at Chervona Zorya, not far from where two Ukrainian fighter jets were downed on Wednesday in what Ukrainian officials said was a missile attack from the Russian side of the border.
“We have facts of shelling of Ukrainian positions from the territory of Russian Federation,” Lysenko said. “We have facts on the violation of air border between Ukraine and Russia.”
Lysenko said some Russian soldiers had surrendered to Ukrainian forces. “We have information about weapons and mercenaries, who have respective skills for warfare, who have been passing over from the territory of Russian Federation,” he said.
Russia has repeatedly denied that its forces are involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine and that it is supplying rebels with weapons and other equipment, despite a substantial body of evidence collected by Ukraine and its allies.
Ukraine and the US have also said the missile that destroyed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was fired from rebel territory using a system supplied by Russia. Ukrainian officials say their forces in recent days have recaptured at least 10 towns, shrinking the amount of territory under rebel control.