Kyiv — Ukraine’s military and the Russian-backed separatists it has battled for eight years in the country’s eastern Donbas region both accused the other side of opening fire on Thursday in violation of ceasefire agreements that have been shaky, at best, since they were signed seven years ago. The reports of shelling and gunfire were a worrying indication that tensions could be escalating despite Russia’s claims to be pulling forces back from Ukraine‘s borders.
The United States and its NATO partners have dismissed Moscow’s assertions of an initial force drawdown along Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders, saying that President Vladimir Putin’s military appears, in reality, to be bolstering troop numbers, not reducing them.
The Russian-backed separatists who control two breakaway districts within the Donbas region, Luhansk and Donetsk, claimed on Thursday that Ukrainian forces had opened fire on a number of villages inside their territory, but that they were still checking for casualties. Officials from the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” said Ukrainian security forces “continue to flagrantly violate the ceasefire regime using heavy weapons.”
Ukraine’s military denied any attack on rebel territory and said it was the separatists who had shelled government-held villages, including a mortar that hit a kindergarten but caused no casualties.
There have been regular skirmishes between the two sides in Donbas since 2014, when Russia last sent in troops to support the rebels. That invasion led to Russia’s unilateral annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Ceasefire agreements signed in 2014 and 2015, known as the Minsk Accords, halted large-scale combat but the war has simmered for almost eight years, leaving 14,000 people dead, according to Ukraine’s government.
It has long been the policy of the Ukraine’s armed forces in Donbas not to respond to provocations from the rebels unless their lives are in immediate danger.
Russia’s recent buildup of around 150,000 troops just over the border from the Donbas region in the east, in Belarus to the north and Crimea to the south, which began in the autumn, has sent tensions soaring. Russia claims the surge of forces has always been for military exercises and that it poses no threat to Ukraine or any other nation, but has refused to offer any real explanation for the biggest buildup of military might in Europe since the Cold War.
Defense officials in Moscow have said since Tuesday that troops and military hardware are pulling back, having completed some of the drills. Western intelligence officials say, on the contrary, that Russia has moved roughly 7,000 more troops close to the borders in recent days.
Satellite imagery shows a recently constructed pontoon bridge over a river in Belarus, of the type a military might construct to quickly move troops, very near the border, and British officials say Russia has also built field hospitals on Russian soil near the Ukrainian frontier.
President Joe Biden said this week that Putin’s forces remain in position to launch an invasion at any time, at short notice, if the Russian leader decides to order one. Mr. Biden, his European counterparts and the G7 have all warned Putin for months that any new invasion of Ukraine would be met with “swift and severe” sanctions.
Ukraine has aspirations to join NATO but is not a member of the Western military alliance now, and the U.S. and other NATO states have ruled out sending troops in to back up Ukraine’s forces directly. The transatlantic partners have made it very clear, however, that if any Russian aggression were to threaten a NATO member — and there are many in the region — they would “stand united to defend each other.”
The U.S. and its allies continue to send more troops and weaponry into Eastern and Northern European NATO states to bolster the alliance’s defenses.
But American officials told CBS News on Wednesday that the window for a potential Russian attack against Ukraine had been extended by four to five days, suggesting hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis had not completely evaporated.
More than a week of intense talks have yielded no signs of significant progress, however, and as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said bluntly on Thursday, “the situation near the borders of Russia can ignite at any moment.”
The U.S. has been waiting for weeks for Moscow to respond fully to a number of proposals sent from Washington to the Kremlin in a bid to find anything the two sides can agree on to ease the tension. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that response was coming on Thursday, and that Russia would publish it within hours of delivering it to Washington.
Haley Ott is a digital reporter/producer for CBS News based in London.