Ukrainian forces ceded a strategic eastern airport to pro-Russian insurgents on Monday, as the government in Kiev accused Moscow of launching a “great war” that could claim tens of thousands of lives.
The sense of foreboding in Kiev came as European-mediated talks over the fast-escalating crisis opened behind closed doors in the Belarussian capital Minsk, attended by Kiev, separatist and Russian envoys.
The rebels have launched a major counteroffensive in recent days that the Ukrainian government and its Western allies claim is backed by Russian forces — a charge Moscow denies.
Ukrainian Minister of Defense Valeriy Geletey vowed to “immediately mount defenses against Russia, which is trying not only to secure positions held by terrorists before, but to advance on other territories of Ukraine.”
“A great war arrived at our doorstep, the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War II,” he wrote on Facebook, warning of “tens of thousands of deaths.”
Russian agencies quoted rebel representatives at the Belarus meeting demanding that Kiev provide the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk with a “unique procedure” that would let them integrate closer with Russia.
The developments come a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said for the first time that the issue of “statehood” should be discussed in talks on the crisis in the east, where fighting has killed more than 2,600 people since the middle of April.
Putin accused Europe of ignoring the Ukrainian military’s “direct targeting” of civilians in the conflict and said the offensive by insurgents there was simply an attempt to expel Kiev’s forces from residential areas.
Kiev said its forces south of the rebel hub of Lugansk were forced to retreat from the local airfield and a nearby village after withstanding artillery fire and fighting a Russian tank battalion.
“There is direct, overt aggression against Ukraine from the neighboring state,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said.
The retreat marked the latest setback for Ukrainian troops, who had been closing in on rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk until about a week ago, when the insurgents opened a new front in the south.
Since then, the rebels’ lightning offensive has forced Ukrainian army units to abandon numerous positions to gear up for the defense of the southeast, in particular the strategic port city of Mariupol, which had been peaceful for months after government troops routed the rebels in May.
Correspondents said the presence of the Ukrainian army in the region had visibly decreased in recent days.
“The town is being erased off the face of the Earth,” said Yelena Proidak, a resident of Petrovske, a town between Donetsk and Lugansk. “There is no normal life here.”
On the Azov Sea coast, where the Kiev government still controls Mariupol, a city of half-a-million people, rocket launchers were used to fire on two Ukrainian patrol boats about 5km from the shore on Sunday. Two border guards from one of the crews went missing, Kiev said.
A Ukrainian security official told reporters on condition of anonymity that Russia’s goal was to “destabilize [Ukraine] and create a land corridor to Crimea,” the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Moscow in March, but connected to Russia only by an old and overloaded ferry link.
Kiev and the West have repeatedly accused Russia of direct involvement in Ukraine, with NATO saying last week that Russia had more than 1,000 of its troops deployed in Ukraine and 20,000 massed along the border.