KIEV, Ukraine – Russian military forces have been spotted in both major rebel-held cities in eastern Ukraine, an official said Tuesday, prompting Ukraine to declare it now has to fight the Russian army, not just the separatists.
The statement on the Russians by Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council, came after the country's defense minister said Ukraine's armed forces are expanding their strategy from just fighting separatists to facing the Russian army in a war that could cost "tens of thousands" of lives.
Lysenko told reporters Russian troops had been seen in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as other locations throughout the east. The claim could not be confirmed independently. Lysenko also said 15 servicemen had been killed over the previous day.
In Moscow, a Kremlin aide sharply criticized EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso for breaching confidentiality when he quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that Moscow could take over Kiev in two weeks if it wished.
Yuri Ushakov, the Russian leader's foreign policy adviser, told reporters that Putin's statement was "taken out of context and carried a completely different meaning."
Ushakov lashed out at Barroso, saying it was a breach of diplomatic practices and "unworthy of a serious politician" to speak publicly about a private conversation.
Putin's comment reportedly came in response to Barroso pointing out Ukrainian and Western claims that Russia had sharply escalated the conflict in eastern Ukraine by sending regular army units into Ukraine. NATO has estimated that at least 1,000 Russian soldiers have entered Ukraine, helping turn the tide in the last week in favor of the pro-Russian insurgents. NATO also says 20,000 Russian soldiers have been positioned along the Ukraine-Russian border.
Ushakov on Tuesday reaffirmed Moscow's repeated denial that it has sent any soldiers in, even though a rebel leader said last week that Russian servicemen on leave were among some 4,000 Russians fighting in Ukraine.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said on his Facebook page that the counter-insurgency operation against the rebels is over and the nation's military is now facing the Russian army.
"This is our Great Patriotic War," he wrote, using the local terminology for World War II.
Russia's Foreign Ministry dismissed Heletey's remarks as "shocking" and accused him of trying to shift blame and keep his position amid a series of defeats suffered by the Ukrainian military.
Pro-Russian rebels have been fighting Ukrainian government troops since mid-April in a conflict that has left more than 2,500 people dead and forced at least 340,000 to flee. In the last week, the rebels have scored significant gains on the ground, launching a new offensive along the Sea of Azov coast.
Efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the hostilities, which followed the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russian president and Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, have failed.
Representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the pro-Russian rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe made another attempt Monday to reach an accord in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Rebels presented a negotiating platform that dropped their previous demand for full independence and expressed readiness to negotiate a settlement that would respect Ukraine's territorial integrity in exchange for a broad autonomy for its eastern provinces.
The talks lasted several hours and were adjourned until Friday, when the parties are expected to discuss specifics of a possible cease-fire and a prisoners' exchange.
However, the prospect of talks between Ukraine and the rebels appear dim.
"We don't cooperate with terrorist organizations," said Iryna Herashchenko, the presidential envoy for eastern Ukraine, according to the Interfax news agency.
And Oleh Tyanhybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda party, said "I would warn the president and diplomats from sitting at the talks table" with rebels.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday urged the United States to use its influence with Ukraine to encourage efforts to reach a political settlement.
"It's necessary to restrain the party of war in Kiev and only the United States can do it," he said at a briefing.