By Francine Lacqua, James G. Neuger and Patrick Donahue
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, gestures as he speaks during a Bloomberg interview.
Ukraine is in “grave danger” of an escalation in its conflict against separatists, President Petro Poroshenko said, as diplomats restarted peace talks and NATO accused Russia of involvement in the fighting.
“The situation can get worse in days,” Poroshenko said on Wednesday in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Davos, Switzerland. Additional Russian fighters and equipment crossing the border are putting pressure on Ukraine’s army, which is “defending democracy and freedom,” he said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated there was no proof that his country is providing military support to the separatists.
The fighting between the government and the rebels has intensified since the latest round of peace talks collapsed last week. Foreign ministers from Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany are meeting in Berlin on Wednesday, seeking enough progress for their leaders to meet in the Kazakh capital of Astana and defuse a conflict that theUnited Nations says has left more than 4,800 people dead.
The conflict is “again becoming very dangerous,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said as the four-way meeting got under way. “We remain available to find solutions, but it has to be clear and obvious that the conflict parties themselves are willing to come closer to a resolution.
Ukraine is demanding an immediate withdrawal of troops, Poroshenko said. He urged rebels to return to a cease-fire agreement signed in September in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the conflict is fed by a flow of Russian forces and weapons, including tanks, artillery, armored vehicles and advanced air-defense systems.
“For several months we have seen the presence of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference in Brussels. “This does not contribute to a peaceful solution of the conflict. We call on Russia to stop its support for separatist forces, to respect its international obligations and to uphold the Minsk agreements.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Washington that “Russian-backed separatists” are undertaking a “very blatant land grab.”
Russia has more than 9,000 troops on Ukrainian territory, Poroshenko said, adding that his country has information about more than 2,000 additional Russian military personnel crossing the border, together with 200 tanks and other vehicles. Russia on Tuesday dismissed the notion of its military being involved as “absolute nonsense.”
Russia is “very worried” by an escalation of the conflict and urges an immediate cease-fire and a halt to shelling of civilian areas, Lavrov said Wednesday in Moscow. The country’s top diplomat said he has “nothing to say” about the allegations that modern Russian weaponry is being used to attack Ukrainians. Russia is still waiting for “material evidence and nothing else -- if there’s an intention to conduct a serious conversation.”
Fighting intensified across the conflict zone, spreading from the Donetsk airport, which has been an epicenter of clashes, the Defense Ministry in Kiev said. Government troops were forced to pull back from a checkpoint in the Luhansk region and were fighting to keep control over another one on Tuesday. Servicemen also repelled assaults near Horlivka north of Donetsk.
“Fierce” clashes at the airport in Donetsk have killed and wounded fighters on both sides, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said, adding that government troops remain at the terminal’s building and the surrounding territory.
Kerry told reporters after meeting in Washington with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, “We’re particularly concerned by signs that the Russian-backed separatists” are attacking the city of Debaltseve, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) east of Donetsk, “in attempt to gain control of a very significant rail juncture.” He called that a “blatant” violation of the Minsk agreements.
Kerry said international monitors reported Tuesday that at least 30 Grad rockets fired from a separatist-controlled area hit the city, killing 3 civilians and injuring 12.
Russia has amassed more than 50,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry in Kiev said in an e-mailed statement on Wednesday. Ukraine demanded Russia explain within 48 hours the purpose of the increased military activity.
“A lasting political settlement remains out of reach,” Otilia Dhand, an analyst at political risk adviser Teneo Intelligence, said by e-mail. “Violence in the Donbas region has re-ignited in recent weeks as separatists attempt to seize strategic sites along the borders of the territory under their control. This makes full implementation of the Minsk cease-fire agreement unlikely.”
The conflict has pushed Ukraine’s economy into its deepest recession since 2009, left the hryvnia 48 percent weaker against the dollar last year and prompted the government to seek financial help on top of a $17 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
The Washington-based lender received a Ukrainian request for a longer-term facility to replace the existing standby agreement, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said in Davos. Ukraine will consult with holders of its sovereign bonds “with the view to improve medium-term debt sustainability,” Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko said.
“Our work on the coordination of financial aid, including bilateral, has been conducted for more than a month and it already has brought some results,” Poroshenko said. “I think that we’ll see these results in the coming two weeks.”