Kiev accused Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday of seeking to “eliminate” Ukraine as an independent state, despite signing up to a fragile peace pact to end months of bloody conflict.
The comments by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk came as Ukraine’s military said it had beaten back a major rebel assault on Donetsk airport, a key battleground in the five-month insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Yatsenyuk told an international conference in Kiev that Putin was deliberately keeping Ukraine in a state of war to create a “frozen conflict” in Russia’s backyard.
“His aim is not just to take Donetsk and Lugansk,” Yatsenyuk said, referring to the industrial regions where separatists fighting Kiev’s rule have declared their own republics.
“His goal is to take the entire Ukraine… he wants to eliminate Ukraine as an independent country,” Yatsenyuk said. “He wants to restore the Soviet Union.”
Yatsenyuk said Kiev could not negotiate with Moscow on its own and needed the United States and the EU to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and sign up to efforts to halt the war that has killed more than 2,700 people since April.
Although fighting has largely abated across eastern Ukraine since the truce was signed eight days ago, both Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists have accused the other of truce violations, particularly around Donetsk airport.
– New Russian convoy –
“Many rebels backed by six tanks launched an assault against the airport on Friday which was heroically repelled by the soldiers,” the Ukrainian military said.
Meanwhile, Russia has sent in a second vast convoy of trucks carrying food, fuel and medicines for devastated regions of rebel-held eastern Ukraine, Russian media reported.
The supply of aid to hundreds of thousands of residents suffering from shortages of basic supplies, running water and power was one of the key provisions of the ceasefire signed in Minsk on September 5.
But a similar aid shipment from Moscow last month exacerbated concerns in Kiev and the West about Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The United States and the European Union went ahead Friday and slapped a new round of sanctions on Russia over what Brussels said was its “unacceptable behaviour” in Ukraine — a move Moscow charged was aimed at wrecking the peace deal.
The measures target major energy, finance and companies, including Russia’s top bank and weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov, and blacklist a host of Putin allies including rebels in Ukraine and Crimea.
“These steps underscore the continued resolve of the international community against Russia?s aggression,” said US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
The new sanctions sent the ruble crashing to historic lows but Putin dismissed them as an effort by the West to destabilise international relations.
Brussels will reconsider its sanctions at the end of September.
And in what was seen as a concession to Moscow, the EU also agreed to delay implementing a trade deal with Ukraine under a broader association agreement that is deeply opposed by Russia.
Moscow has already threatened to bar EU airlines from its airspace, and has drawn up a list targeting imports of consumer goods and second-hand cars from the West.
The West remains deeply suspicious over Moscow’s territorial ambitions after it seized Crimea in March in the chaotic weeks that followed the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president.
Both Kiev and NATO say around 1,000 Russian troops are still in Ukraine in what has been described as an invasion by stealth to bolster the separatist revolt.
Ukrainian authorities say the insurgents now control territory stretching about 300 kilometres (200 miles) along the eastern border to the Sea of Azov after a lightning surge reportedly backed by elite Russian forces just days before the truce.
Pro-Russian rebels have held the city of Donetsk itself for months but Ukrainian forces have dug in at the airport since a major battle there in May that all but destroyed the site.
– ‘We are being killed’ –
“Are Russian forces trying to capture Donetsk airport?” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bilt said on Twitter. “If that is the case then it’s a clear Moscow violation of ceasefire agreement.”
People living close to the airport say there is no truce, with ongoing shelling damaging buildings and forcing residents to take shelter in basements, or to flee.
“When they bomb, fire at women and elderly civilians, what can we feel? We are being killed here, simply killed,” said retired miner Victor Smolin, showing AFP where a mortar shell tore through the roof of a block of flats.
In a conciliatory gesture this week, Poroshenko said he planned legislation granting parts of the east temporary self-rule, although rebel leaders say they have no intention of abandoning the fight for full independence.
But with the West firmly on his side, Poroshenko has also demonstrated his determination to remove Ukraine further from Russia’s orbit, with the ratification of the EU pact next week before he visits Washington.