A Ukrainian soldier was killed and four others injured when heavy fighting erupted yesterday in eastern Ukraine, the country’s military said, as it and Russian-backed separatists blamed each other for the flare-up.
The violence was some of the worst since a Paris summit in December tried to narrow positions between Kyiv and the separatists on implementing a peace deal, and it comes ahead of a possible second summit on the same issue in Berlin.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he would convene a national security council meeting to discuss the latest flare-up in the country’s Donbass region.
“This is not just a cynical provocation ... it is an attempt to disrupt the peace process in the Donbass, which had begun to move through small but continuous steps,” Zelenskiy said in a statement.
He later said he did not believe the fighting would stymie efforts to end the conflict, in which more than 13,000 people have been killed since 2014 despite a 2015 ceasefire deal.
Announcing the death of one of its soldiers, Ukraine’s military also accused Russian-backed forces of using heavy shelling to try to breach Ukrainian lines.
“This is one of the biggest escalations in the last few years,” Ukrainian military spokesman Dmytro Chalyi told AFP.
But the separatists accused Ukrainian government forces of attacking first, saying that a small group of soldiers had tried and failed to break through their lines.
It said the group had stumbled into a minefield which had left two Ukrainian soldiers dead and three others injured.
Ukrainian forces had then shelled civilian areas, they said.
The Kremlin said it had seen reports of the clashes and was looking into them.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said both sides had suffered casualties, adding that Moscow “does not know the details of what provoked the clash”.
Ukraine, Western countries and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) accuse Russia of sending troops and heavy weapons to prop up separatist fighters in Donbass, a charge that Moscow has denied.
Zelenskiy came to power last year promising to end the conflict.
Since then, Ukraine and Russia have implemented some confidence-building measures, including prisoner swaps and phased troop withdrawals in designated areas.
Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone last week, the Ukrainian leader’s office said.
Meanwhile, Putin has sacked Vladislav Surkov, one of his chief advisers and the architect of Russia’s Ukraine policy, who was viewed among the country’s most powerful men.
The dismissal of the 55-year-old Surkin was announced on the Kremlin website but there was no indication of what his new job would be.
In recent years, Surkov was in charge of the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy and cultivated close ties with the separatists who have carved out “people’s republics” in the ex-Soviet country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
He was replaced earlier this month as the Kremlin’s chief ideologue and pointman on relations with Ukraine and Moscow-backed separatists by Dmitry Kozak, a 61-year-old veteran official and a close ally of Putin.
As first deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Surkov helped transform Russian parliament into a rubber stamp, muzzle media and neuter the opposition.
The secretive strategist oversaw political parties in parliament and electoral campaigns that invariably handed victory to Putin.
Surkov saw his influence wane after he was moved to the government in a reshuffle in 2011 and served two years in the rank of deputy prime minister.
In 2013, he returned to the Kremlin where he served as Putin’s adviser in charge of Russia’s ties with Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries.
He found himself back in the spotlight when Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported Russian-speaking separatists in Ukraine’s industrial east.
Separatists openly admitted that Surkov advised the leadership of the breakaway statelets.
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