TIME russia

Russian Soldiers in Ukraine Put Pressure on Putin

With evidence of Russian military activity in Ukraine piling up, how long can Moscow deny its involvement in the ongoing conflict?

The frantic appeal to the Russian President came on Wednesday from a cramped and cluttered office in the city of Kostroma, about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, where the relatives of Russian prisoners of war had gathered to wait for news of their sons and husbands. Olga Pochtoeva, the mother of one of the Russian soldiers recently captured in Ukraine, stood before the camera, her eyes red from crying, and addressed Vladimir Putin directly. “I beg you in the name of Christ,” she said. “Give me back my child. Give him back alive.”

It was another blow to Putin’s position on the war in eastern Ukraine. The previous night, after a round of talks aimed at ending a conflict that has claimed more than 2,000 lives since April, Putin had again insisted that Russia was not a party to the conflict and had sent no soldiers to fight it. “This is not our business,” he told reporters after the talks in the capital of Belarus, having just finished his first meeting since June with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “It is a domestic matter of Ukraine itself,” he said.

But Putin’s persistent denials of Russian involvement have started to crack, eroded by a growing body of proof that Russian soldiers are in fact fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine. The evidence suggests a new level of Russian involvement in the war, not merely funneling weapons and volunteers across the border to the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, but sending regular Russian ground forces on missions into Ukrainian territory. The inevitable result of that escalation has been a growing Russian casualty count, and the funerals and panicked relatives of Russian soldiers have been hard to sweep under the rug. Soon they are likely to force Putin either to come clean and admit his country’s intervention in Ukraine, or to face the growing public resentment over his denials.

The first crack in Russia’s claim of non-involvement came on Monday morning, when the Ukrainian security services released images of nine Russian paratroopers who had been captured on the Ukrainian side of the border. In the video statement of Pochtoeva’s son, Yegor Pochtoev, he appeals to his parents directly. “Mom, dad, everything is fine. I have enough to eat and drink,” he says. “But the Russian Ministry of Defense is denying that we are their servicemen, that we have come from Russia.” He asks his parents to help prove that they are Russian soldiers.

The morning after the videos were released, Pochtoeva and the other relatives of the captured soldiers began placing frantic calls to the local branch of the Committee for Soldiers’ Mothers, a civil society organization that defends the rights of military servicemen in Russia. Lyudmila Khokhlova, the Committee’s chairwoman in the region of Kostroma, arranged for all the relatives to gather that afternoon at the military base where the captured soldiers had served. “Everyone in the hall was screaming. They had a lot to get off their chests,” she tells TIME of the confrontation between the relatives and the officers at the base.

When the deputy commander of the base arrived, he told the families that the soldiers in the videos had indeed been taken prisoner in Ukraine, Khokhlova says. But they were apparently the lucky ones. “They told us that two others from their group had been killed and some wounded,” she says, recounting the words of the officer who met with the families. “The wounded were taken back across the border to a hospital in [the Russian city of] Rostov.”

The Russian Defense Ministry, in a curt statement on the incident on Tuesday, said nothing about Russian soldiers being killed or wounded in Ukraine, but admitted that a group of paratroopers had been captured on the wrong side of the border. Asked about their fate on Tuesday night, Putin suggested that they had simply gotten lost and veered into Ukraine by accident. “What I heard is that they were patrolling the border and might have ended up on Ukrainian territory,” Putin said with a shrug. He expressed hope that “there wouldn’t be any problem” with getting them back home, but offered no promises or plans to do so.

Nor did he make any mention of the Russian servicemen who have apparently been coming home in bags. Those incidents have become so frequent that even the Kremlin’s own human rights council, an oversight body that operates with a degree of independence, appealed to Russia’s military authorities on Tuesday to investigate the mysterious deaths of nine Russian servicemen “not far from the Rostov region,” which borders Ukraine. All of them were contractors from the 18th motorized infantry brigade, mostly natives of the region of Dagestan, and were killed in unexplained circumstances in early August, according to the Kremlin rights council. One of the council members who authored that appeal, Ella Polyakova, later told Russian media that the military hospitals along Russia’s border with Ukraine had for some reason filled up with wounded soldiers. “A lot of our boys have been killed in recent days,” she told Russia’s only independent news channel, TV Rain. (Polyakova did not respond to TIME’s requests for further comment.)

The clearest evidence to support her claim emerged on Monday from the region of Pskov, where the bodies of several Russian paratroopers were buried on Monday. Lev Shlosberg, a lawmaker in the regional parliament, tells TIME that the funerals were held in total secret and that family members had been warned not to discuss the deaths with anyone. “What’s the goal? The goal is to prevent society from learning the scale of the losses and considering the costs of this war,” Shlosberg says, claiming that the soldiers had been killed in battle in eastern Ukraine. “The state is trying to hide the involvement of our soldiers in these military actions, because they are not legal or constitutional. There was no official order from the commander in chief or the defense minister to participate in this conflict.”

Despite the reticence of Russian officials, numerous reports of Russian casualties have begun to emerge. TV Rain, which narrowly avoided the state’s attempt to take it off the air earlier this year, has been airing marathon coverage of the funerals in Pskov and the fates of the paratroopers buried there. When a group of Russian reporters attempted to film the graves at a provincial cemetery near Pskov, several men in civilian clothes chased down the journalists’ car and attacked it on Wednesday, puncturing its the tires and attempting to break out the windows. (Footage of the incident appeared on the website of TV Rain, and elicited a rebuke from the press freedom watchdog at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.)

The Russian state-run media have meanwhile been avoiding the reports of killed Russian servicemen almost entirely. The news that nine Russian soldiers had been captured in Ukraine warranted no more than three paragraphs on Tuesday on the website of the Kremlin’s main broadcaster, Vesti, which echoed Putin’s assertion the following day that the soldiers had simply made a wrong turn into Ukraine while patrolling the border.

“This sounds to me like a joke,” says Lidiya Sviridova, the head of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers in the region of Saratov. During a press conference on Tuesday in the regional capital, she called on the parents of all Russian soldiers to find out whether their sons have been sent to Ukraine and, if so, to publicly appeal to the state for answers. The families of numerous servicemen have gotten in touch with her asking for help in finding missing Russian soldiers, she tells TIME by phone from Saratov on Wednesday. “They could not all have gotten lost.”

On Wednesday evening, with the reports piling up of Russian military casualties Ukraine, Putin’s spokesman finally responded, at least to the claims of a secret funeral in Pskov. “The relevant agencies are certainly checking this information,” Dmitri Peskov told the Interfax news agency. But it’s not clear how long such answers can restrain the public’s concern. Though the Kremlin controls nearly all mass media in Russia, it has little sway over the online press, where the reports of Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine have become the hottest topic of debate. Civil society groups like the Committee for Soldiers’ Mothers are also refusing to keep mum. “The silence in the official media is deafening,” says Shlosberg, the lawmaker in Pskov. “Everybody here knows what’s going on. Everybody is talking about it.” Everybody, it seems, except for Putin.

TIME energy

Dropping Oil Prices Threaten Moscow’s Budget

Oil refinery in Ufa, Russia, seen in April 2014.
Oil refinery in Ufa, Russia, seen in April 2014. Andrey Rudakov—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Russia has seen its economy boom with the price of oil. But if the cost of crude falls, Moscow could struggle to make ends meet

This article originally appeared on OilPrice.com

Oil and gas are at the heart of the Russian economy and are largely responsible for keeping Moscow’s government budget in balance. But the recent decline in the price of oil from the North Sea and Texas has now spread to Urals crude, giving President Vladimir Putin one more economic headache.

The price of Urals crude fell just below $100 per barrel on Aug. 18, an 18-month low. On Aug. 19, it dropped to less than $97 per barrel. These declines coincided with similar drops in the price of Brent crude from the North Sea and U.S. oil.

The reasons are fairly easy to recognize. First, the United States has been on a drilling tear, extracting oil at record levels to increase its supply at a time when demand is waning. Second, though more tentative, is that conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East are so far not interfering with oil production in these regions.

This oil production boom raises problems for Moscow. Two-thirds of Russia’s exports are oil and gas, accounting for fully half of the central government’s revenues. That means that so far this year, every dollar drop in the price of Russian oil means a cut of about $1.4 billion in revenues.

This comes as Russia’s oil industry joins its defense and finance sectors as targets of sanctions by the European Union and the United States over Moscow’s unilateral annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine and its suspected role in the fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Some analysts say the effects of the lower oil prices may not be lasting unless the drop in oil prices fall further in coming years. Vladimir Kolychev, the chief economist at VTB Capital, a global investment firm with headquarters in Moscow, says brief dips have less of an impact on Russia’s budget than the average cost of oil over an entire year.

“The first thing to remember is that the oil price projected by the finance ministry is … $104 average for the year – that still looks conservative,” Kolychev told Reuters. “Even if the oil price falls to $90, we’ll still have $105 average.”

As an example, Kolychev calculates that Russia’s budget would balance if oil’s average price fell to $103 per barrel.

Even if Moscow can tame its budget, it seems clear that Russia’s oil sector will feel the pain from the one-two punch of Western sanctions and lower prices. Vedomosti, a Russian financial journal, reported Aug. 14 that government-owned Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, has asked Moscow for more than $40 billion in debt relief because of the sanctions.

That’s a sharp reversal from just a month ago. Western sanctions were imposed on July 15, and three days later, Rosneft officials shrugged them off, saying the company would continue to pursue its plans and reap profits. In fact, a week after that statement, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin boasted that the company’s revenues were soaring.

 

TIME Ukraine

Putin Sits Down With Ukrainian President for Talks

(MINSK, Belarus) — The presidents of Russia and Ukraine sat down for talks Tuesday, meeting face-to-face for the first time since June on the fighting that has engulfed Ukraine’s separatist east.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko were joined by the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan and three senior officials from the European Union in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.

The meeting came as Ukraine said its forces had captured 10 Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine and the shelling spread to a new front in the far southeast. Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of supporting and arming the rebels, which Russia denies daily.

“The fate of peace and the fate of Europe are being decided in Minsk today,” Poroshenko said as the talks began.

Under pressure to seek a negotiated settlement and not a military victory, the Ukrainian president said the purpose of his visit was to start the process of searching for a political compromise and promised that the interests of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine would be taken into account.

Putin devoted most of his opening remarks to trade, arguing that Ukraine’s decision to sign an association agreement with the EU would lead to huge losses for Russia, which would then be forced to protect its economy. Russia had been counting on Ukraine joining a rival economic union that it is forming with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Ukraine is set to ratify the EU association agreement in September.

On the fighting that began in April between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia separatists, Putin said only that he was certain the conflict “could not be solved by further escalation of the military scenario without taking into account the vital interests of the southeast of the country and without a peaceful dialogue of its representatives.”

Poroshenko would be unlikely to agree to Russia’s frequent call for federalization — devolving wide powers to the regions from the central government — but could agree to allow them to have some expanded powers.

He also has spoken against holding a referendum on Ukraine’s joining NATO; Russia’s desire to keep Ukraine out of the alliance is seen as one of Moscow’s key concerns.

Opening Tuesday’s meeting, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko urged both sides to “discard political ambitions and not to seek political dividend.”

Putin has so far ignored requests from the rebels to be annexed by Russia — unlike in March, when he annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. But Associated Press journalists on the border have seen the rebels with a wide range of military equipment — including tanks, Buk missile launchers and armored personnel carriers — and have run into many Russians among the rebel fighters.

Ukraine wants the rebels to hand back the territory they have captured in eastern Ukraine, while Putin wants to retain some sort of leverage over the mostly Russian-speaking region so Ukraine does not join NATO or the European Union.

The Facebook page for Ukraine’s anti-rebel operation said soldiers from a Russian paratrooper division were captured Monday around Amvrosiivka, a town near the Russian border.

Towering columns of smoke rose Tuesday from outside a city in Ukraine’s far southeast after what residents said was a heavy artillery barrage. Ukraine accused separatists and their Russian backers of trying to expand the conflict.

It was the second straight day that attacks were reported in the vicinity of Novoazovsk, which is in eastern Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk region but previously had seen little fighting.

Local residents in Novoazovsk, some hastily packing up in order to flee, told The Associated Press it was not clear what direction the firing had come from Tuesday.

Ukrainian officials on Monday said artillery was fired from the Russian side of the border. A Ukrainian soldier who declined to give his name suggested that Tuesday’s shelling could have come from rebels aiming to take out a Ukrainian rocket launcher.

In Kiev, Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, blamed the shelling on “Russian mercenaries.”

Novoazovsk lies on the Azov Sea on the road that runs from Russia to the major Ukrainian port of Mariupol. That same road goes west to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in March.

Ukraine said a small column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles crossed into Ukraine on Monday north of Novoazovsk, raising the possibility that pro-Russia separatists were aiming to take control of a strip of land that would link up Russia with Crimea.

“Russia is trying from its side to open a new front,” Lysenko told reporters.

“The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt said on his Twitter account.

Lysenko said there were enough forces and equipment in Mariupol to defend the city of more than 450,000. An AP reporter saw excavators digging deep trenches Tuesday on the eastern edge of the city.

Ukraine’s posting about the captured soldiers included videos of five of the men.

One of the captured soldiers, who identified himself as Sergei Smirnov, said they were not told anything about their mission.

“We were just traveling through fields and then we stopped in the middle of the field and the BMP2 (armored vehicle) broke down,” he said.

Asked if he knew they were on Ukrainian territory, he said: “When we got into the village we saw a tank with Ukrainian flag. Then we understood.” He said they then came under fire.

Russian news agencies quoted an unnamed official in the Russian Defense Ministry as saying the soldiers were patrolling the border and probably crossed the border inadvertently.

Russia reportedly has tens of thousands of troops positioned in areas near the Ukrainian border, leading to persistent concerns that Moscow could be preparing an invasion.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine began in mid-April, a month after Russia annexed Crimea. It has killed over 2,000 people and forced over 340,000 to flee, according to the U.N.

___

Leonard reported from Novoazovsk, Ukraine. Jim Heintz in Kiev, Ukraine, and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.

TIME Ukraine

Rice Slams Moscow’s Intervention in Ukraine as ‘Dangerous and Inflammatory’

Susan Rice
National Security Adviser Susan Rice listens to reporters questions during a briefing on March 21, 2014 Manuel Balce Ceneta —AP

The National Security Adviser's condemnation comes ahead of a meeting between Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin

U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice has berated Russia for continuing to pump heavy weaponry and military personnel into Ukraine’s eastern provinces, where a pro-Moscow insurgency has been taking place since April.

“Repeated Russian incursions into Ukraine unacceptable. Dangerous and inflammatory,” said Rice on her Twitter account. “Russia has no right to send vehicles or cargo into Ukraine without Govt of Ukraine’s permission,” she said in a separate tweet.

She added that the Kremlin’s incursions into Ukraine represented a “significant escalation” of the crisis.

Rice’s strong words came hours ahead of a scheduled round of talks between Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belarus on Tuesday. They also followed confirmation from NATO commanders last week that artillery units, manned by Russian troops, were operating both outside and within Ukraine and were bombarding Ukrainian forces.

Relations between Kiev and Moscow have been in a precipitous downward spiral since the ousting of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych by mass demonstrations earlier this year. That was followed in March by the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula — a move that inspired a pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine the following month.

Under the leadership of Poroshenko, Ukraine has incrementally beaten back the insurgency, despite the aid that the rebels are receiving.

“What we’ve seen in recent weeks is a steady advance by the Ukrainian forces and Russia trying to pull various expedients out of the hat to help their proxies over the border,” John Besemeres, professor and adjunct fellow at Australian National University’s Center for European Studies, tells TIME. “So far, at least, it doesn’t appear that any of these are working.”

On Monday, Kiev claimed to have captured a number of Russian paratroopers inside its borders.

The news came as President Poroshenko dissolved the country’s parliament and called for a new round of elections in October.

“Many deputies who are in the [Parliament] are direct sponsors or accomplices, that is to say allies of the militant separatists,” said Poroshenko, according to the Associated Press.

Approximately 2,249 people have been killed and more than 6,000 injured in Ukraine since hostilities erupted, according to an assessment by the U.N.

Despite the heavy losses, which include more than 700 Ukrainian servicemen, Poroshenko appears to be committed to eradicating the insurgents.

“We will manage to defend the independence, life and security of everyone, our right to live freely on our Ukrainian land at the cost of colossal efforts of the entire nation,” the President told the country during a national address on Aug. 24, the country’s Independence Day.

TIME Ukraine

Ukrainian President Dissolves Parliament

Petro Poroshenko Press Conference
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko Dan Kitwood—Getty Images

(KIEV, Ukraine) — Ukraine’s president on Monday dissolved parliament and called for early elections in October as his country continues to battle a pro-Russian insurgency in its eastern regions.

President Petro Poroshenko announced in a statement posted on his website that he has dissolved parliament and called for snap elections on October 26.

He said the move was in coherence with the Ukrainian constitution, noting that the ruling coalition collapsed several weeks ago.

“Many deputies who are in the Rada (parliament) are direct sponsors or accomplices, that is to say allies of the militant separatists,” Poroshenko said.

The announcement came a day ahead of a summit that includes both Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and could be aimed at pressuring Ukraine into seeking a negotiated end to the conflict rather than a military victory.

Over the past month, Ukrainian forces have made substantial inroads against pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, taking control of several sizeable towns and cities that had been under rebel control since April, when the clashes began.

But the advances have come at a high cost — more than 2,000 civilians reportedly killed and at least 726 Ukrainian servicemen. There is no independent figure for the number of rebel dead, although Ukrainian authorities said Monday that 250 rebels were in fighting around Olenivka, a town 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Donetsk.

Earlier Monday, a Ukrainian official said a column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles entered southeastern Ukraine — a move that brings the conflict to an area that has so far escaped the intense fighting of recent weeks.

Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, told reporters that the column of 10 tanks, two armored vehicles and two trucks crossed the border near the village of Shcherbak and that shells were fired from Russia toward the nearby city of Novoazovsk. He said they were Russian military vehicles bearing the flags of the separatist Donetsk rebels. The village is in the Donetsk region, but not under the control of the rebels.

The Ukrainian National Guard later said two of the tanks had been destroyed.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday he had no information about the column.

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine: Russian Tank Column Enters Southeast

(KIEV, Ukraine) — A column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles has crossed into southeastern Ukraine, away from where most of the intense fighting has been taking place, a top Ukrainian official said Monday.

Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, told reporters that the column of 10 tanks, two armored vehicles and two trucks crossed the border near Shcherbak and that the nearby city of Novoazovsk was shelled during the night from Russia. He said they were Russian military vehicles bearing flags of the separatist Donetsk rebels.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday he had no information about the column.

The reported incursion and shelling could indicate an attempt to move on Mariupol, a major port on the Azov Sea, an arm of the Black Sea. Mariupol lies on the main road between Russia and Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Russia annexed in March. Capturing Mariupol could be the first step in building a slice of territory that links Russia with Crimea.

Although Mariupol is in Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk region, most of the fighting between separatist rebels and Ukrainian troops has been well to the north, including around the city of Donetsk, the rebels’ largest stronghold. A full offensive in the south could draw Ukrainian forces away from the fight for Donetsk.

Lysenko said Mariupol has enough defenders “to repel any attack of uninvited guests.”

Ukraine has always said Russia is funding the rebels, a statement Russia has denied repeatedly.

Russia announced plans, meanwhile, to send a second aid convoy into rebel-held eastern Ukraine, where months of fighting have left many residential buildings in ruins.

Russia’s unilateral dispatch of over 200 trucks into Ukraine on Friday was denounced by the Ukrainian government as an invasion and condemned by the United States, the European Union and NATO. Even though the white-tarpaulined tractor-trailers returned to Russia without incident on Saturday, the announcement of another convoy was likely to raise new suspicions that Russia is supplying the rebels.

Lavrov said Monday that Russia had notified the Ukrainian government it was preparing to send a second convoy along the same route in the coming days, but Lysenko said he had no information on that plan.

Lavrov also said the food, water and other goods delivered to the hard-hit rebel city of Luhansk was being distributed Monday and that Red Cross workers were assisting with talks on how best to distribute it. There was no immediate confirmation on that from the Red Cross.

In sending in the first convoy, Russia said it had lost patience with what it called Ukraine’s stalling tactics. It claimed that soon “there will no longer be anyone left to help” in Luhansk, where weeks of heavy shelling have cut off power, water and phone service and made food scarce.

The Ukrainian government in the past few weeks has been making strong gains, taking back territory from the rebels. It believed the aid convoy was a ploy by Russia to get supplies to the rebels and slow down the government advances.

On Sunday, as Ukraine celebrated the anniversary of its 1991 independence from Moscow, President Peter Poroshenko announced the government would be increasing its military spending in a bid to defeat the rebels.

In rebel-held Donetsk, captured Ukrainian soldiers were paraded Sunday through the streets, jeered by the crowd and pelted with eggs and tomatoes.

___

Peter Leonard in Donetsk, Ukraine, and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report

TIME Ukraine

Civil War Hangs Heavy Over Ukraine During Its Independence Day Celebrations

Ukrainian forces parade during a military ceremony marking the 23rd anniversary of Ukraine's independence in Kiev on Aug. 24, 2014.
Ukrainian forces parade during a military ceremony marking the 23rd anniversary of Ukraine's independence in Kiev on Aug. 24, 2014. Sergei Supinsky—AFP/Getty Images

Marches in Kiev take place amid new reports of Russian hardware finding its way into rebel hands

The increasingly bloody war carving up Ukraine was in the thoughts of many Sunday as the embattled nation observed a somber Independence Day.

In Kiev, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gave an impassioned address, praising the “warriors” fighting against foreign aggression.

“Never in 23 years has this day been so majestic as today. People have never celebrated it as sincerely as today,” said Poroshenko, as honor guards and battle-primed infantry, preparing to deploy to the front, stood ramrod straight.

“Ukraine will never again celebrate this holiday under [the] military-historical calendar of the neighboring country. We will honor defenders of our motherland, not someone else’s!” roared Poroshenko.

Following the speech, a military band led a column of troops, missile launchers and armor through Kiev’s Maidan Square in a pointed message to Moscow, days ahead of a meeting between Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Further east, in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, an entirely different scene played out, as pro-Russian separatists marched captured Ukrainian soldiers at gunpoint through the streets of Donetsk city.

Pedestrians responded to sight of the haggard prisoners of war with cries of “fascists” and some threw bottles at the POWs, according to Reuters.

“This is no independence day. This is a plague on our land, the fascists who have taken control of Kiev who are now shooting at hospitals and morgues,” one Donestk resident told the news agency.

Ukraine has been locked in bitter civil war for months in the wake of a pro-Moscow uprising in the country’s far east, following the Russian military’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in March.

Kiev and Washington have accused the Putin Administration of providing arms and supplies to the separatists, including a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system that could have downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17 in July with the loss of 298 lives.

On Friday, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes confirmed to reporters that forces within Russia were firing artillery into Ukraine and moving heavy weaponry across the border into rebel hands.

TIME Ukraine

Truck Convoy Returns Swiftly to Russia From Ukraine

Ukraine
Trucks marked as being from a disputed Russian aid convoy to Ukraine return to Russia as people wait to enter Ukraine on the border post at Izvaryne, eastern Ukraine, Aug. 23, 2014. Sergei Grits—AP

A Russian truck convoy that raised alarms in the West for driving into war-torn E. Ukraine despite opposition in Kiev returned to Russia Saturday

A large Russian truck convoy that raised alarms in the West for driving into war-torn eastern Ukraine despite opposition in Kiev returned to Russia Saturday.

After the convoy delivered supplies of what Ukrainian border officials said was buckwheat, rice, sugar, water and medical supplies to the city of Luhansk, the column turned back across the border into Russia, the New York Times reports. However, the contents of some of the trucks went unchecked, and some in the Ukrainian government and the West believe they could have been used to deliver military gear to pro-Russia Ukrainian separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine.

Officials in the West and in Ukraine’s government sharply protested the Kremlin’s decision to send the truck convoy into Ukraine without an escort by the International Committee of the Red Cross and over the objections of the Ukrainian government in Kiev. NATO’s Secretary General, meanwhile, said the convoy paired with a “major escalation in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine” as NATO accused Russia of moving Russian artillery units into Ukraine.

The trucks, which were only partially filled, were “Russian military vehicles painted to look like civilian trucks,” said Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman, on Friday. Hayden added that because only some of the vehicles were inspected, it was impossible to know what the whole convoy was carrying.

[NYT]

TIME Ukraine

Russian Artillery Units Are Firing at Ukrainian Soldiers, NATO Says

A pro-Russian gunman is seen through a shrapnel hole after shelling in Donetsk on August 22, 2014.
A pro-Russian gunman is seen through a shrapnel hole after shelling in Donetsk on August 22, 2014. Dimitar Dilkoff—AFP/Getty Images

The move marks an escalation in a conflict over a region embroiled in war between Ukraine's central government and pro-Russian separatists

Updated 5:57 p.m. on Aug. 22

Artillery units being operated by Russian soldiers have crossed into Ukraine and are firing on Ukrainian forces, Western officials said Friday, in an apparent escalation of the ongoing conflict along the border.

“We have seen the use of Russian artillery in Ukraine in the past days,” U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters Friday, calling it part of “a pattern whereby we’ve seen firing from within Russia into Ukraine, and we’ve seen a disturbing movement of Russian artillery and military equipment into Ukraine as well.”

Rhodes also called on Russia to remove a convoy of trucks that recently entered Ukraine, which Moscow says are bringing aid but whose arrival was not coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Ukraine has called the entry of the trucks a “direct invasion.”

“Russia should take the opportunity to remove this convoy from within Ukraine,” Rhodes said. “If they don’t, they will face additional costs and consequences from the United States and our partners in the international community.”

Russia has long been accused by the West of lending support, including arms and sometimes clandestine personnel, to pro-Russian separatists in the eastern half of Ukraine, but comments by Rhoades and NATO leaders marked the first time Western powers have accused Moscow of directly invading Ukrainian territory with Russian military units and personnel.

A NATO spokeswoman said the military alliance has received multiple of Russian forces being directly involved in recent days, the New York Times reports, “including Russian airborne, air defense and special operations.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in a statement from Brussels, said the group has “also seen transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and artillery to separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, NATO is observing an alarming build-up of Russian ground and air forces in the vicinity of Ukraine.”

Rasmussen condemned Moscow for allowing an ostensibly humanitarian economic convoy to enter Ukraine with no involvement from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which typically coordinates such missions. He went on to blame Russia for escalating tensions with a military buildup along the Ukrainian border.

“This is a blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments, including those made recently in Berlin and Geneva, and a further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty by Russia,”Rasmussen said. “It can only deepen the crisis in the region, which Russia itself has created and has continued to fuel.”

The Obama Administration also condemned the latest Russian movements.

“At the same time as Russian vehicles violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia maintains a sizable military force on the Ukrainian border capable of invading Ukraine on very short notice,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. “It has repeatedly fired into Ukrainian territory, and has sent an ever-increasing stream of military equipment and fighters into Ukraine.”

TIME Pictures of the Week

Pictures of the Week: Aug. 15 – Aug. 22

From ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and the killing of Hamas leaders in Gaza to Pope Francis’ visit to South Korea and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

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