Ukraine said on Friday it had destroyed part of a Russian armored column that had entered its territory overnight. Russia rejected the accusation as “some kind of fantasy” and blamed Ukraine instead for sabotaging its delivery of aid into eastern areas of the country where separatists it supports appear to be losing the fight against government forces.
In a phone call with British prime minister David Cameron, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, said a “significant” part of a Russian column had been destroyed, according to a statement from Poroshenko’s office.
NATO also claimed there had been an incursion. “It just confirms the fact that we see a continuous flow of weapons and fighters from Russia into eastern Ukraine and it is a clear demonstration of continued Russian involvement in the destabilization of eastern Ukraine,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary general, said.
Earlier in the week, NATO warned there was a “high probability” of Russian military intervention in Ukraine. The pro-Russian insurrection there has been largely driven back by the Ukrainian army. Donetsk and Luhansk are the only major cities the rebels still control.
Although reporters for two British newspapers saw some two dozen Russian armored personnel carriers roll into Ukraine Thursday night, Russia’s Defense Ministry denied the next day its forces had crossed the border.
It was unclear whether the column was part of the Russian army or if the vehicles had been commandeered by rebels.
Russia denies Western accusations that it backs the Ukrainian uprising but Russian artillery and tanks have found their way into country while Russian citizens are leading the revolt.
On Tuesday, Russia dispatched some 280 trucks to Ukraine in what it said was a humanitarian effort. Neither the International Committee of the Red Cross, which Russia said would coordinate the distribution of aid, nor the Ukrainian government was made aware of the trucks’ contents — or where the caravan would go.
Reporters from the BBC and the Financial Times were able to look inside some of the trucks parked on the Russian side of the border on Friday and found they were almost empty.
Western countries worry that Russia might use Ukrainian attempts to prevents the trucks from entering the country as a justification for intervention. Even if no such attempt had been made yet, Russia’s state broadcaster RT on Friday already warned the convoy “may be attacked by Kiev’s forces.”
Russia has repeatedly blamed Ukraine, a former Soviet satellite state, for the unrest in its Russophone southeast, sparked by mass demonstrations in favor of closer relations with the rest of Europe in Kiev earlier this year and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March.
Even after separatists used a Russian missile launcher to shoot down a commercial airliner last month, apparently mistaking it for an Ukrainian military transport aircraft, President Vladimir Putin insisted Ukraine bore responsibility for the plane crash that killed nearly three hundred passengers and crew.