At least 12 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and more than two dozen wounded in an outburst of fighting with Russian-backed rebels since the weekend that is playing out against a backdrop of still uncertain relations between Moscow and Washington.
In the latest deaths, Ukraine's Anti-Terrorist Operation said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed Wednesday in the disputed eastern regions. The government’s press office said one soldier was killed and nine soldiers and one civilian injured late Tuesday in Avdiivka, a town of 20,000 people located just north of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
The government-held town of Avdiivka came under sustained shell fire, which knocked out power as temperatures fell as low as zero Fahrenheit, the Associated Press reported. Several buses were used to remove people from the conflict zone, Bloomberg reported.
“Escalation in the area is of grave concern, with the civilian population greatly suffering,” said Ertugrul Apakan, chief monitor of the special monitoring mission to the Ukraine by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “Violence on such a scale, involving the loss of life, is unacceptable and the protection of civilians must be paramount.”
He noted damage to a water filtration plant, disrupting the delivery of heating supplies, electricity and water. In the late morning Wednesday, shelling subsided amid unconfirmed reports that both sides had agreed to a cease-fire to restore electricity and water supplies, the AP reports.
An AP correspondent reported seeing rebel artillery positions in the center of Donetsk city on Wednesday. Local residents reported incessant outgoing and incoming artillery salvos heard throughout the night and in the morning, an intensity that the city has not seen in months, AP reported.
Separatist forces said two of their fighters were killed and six wounded in the latest violence, according to the AP.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cut short his visit to Germany and called an emergency meeting of the Contact Group for the settlement of the conflict and appealed to the United Nations.
The U.N. Security Council expressed its "grave concern" over the "dangerous deterioration" in eastern Ukraine and called for an end to the violence. Both Russia and Ukraine are members of the council: Russia as a permanent member and Ukraine taking over the rotating presidency on Wednesday. Both nations had agreed to the Security Council statement, which decried the unrest for its "severe impact on the local civilian population."
The State Department said in a statement that the United States "is deeply concerned with the recent spike in violence in eastern Ukraine."
The Ukrainian Crisis media center blamed Russian-backed militants for the upsurge in fighting, charging that the rebels had launched an "unprovoked attack" on Ukrainian troops and the civilian population but met heavy resistance.
The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Ukrainian troops of launching offensive operations to pick up territory using heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems. In a statement, the ministry also noted that every outbreak of new fighting "strangely enough" occurred while the Ukrainian leadership, in this case Poroshenko, was on foreign trips. "Clearly, this is an attempt to keep the crisis provoked by Kiev on the international agenda," the statement said.
Nearly 10,000 people have died since initial clashes broke out in April 2014 between Ukrainian troops and rebels, largely ethnic Russians living in the eastern regions who are seeking independence from Kiev. A tenuous ceasefire — known as the Minsk agreement — was declared in a meeting in the Belarusian capital in February 2015 in an attempt to end the conflict.
An urgent meeting of the so-called Contact Group, which brings together representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the rebels along with the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, ended Wednesday in Minsk, Belarus. The group, which aims at implementing the 2-year-old Minsk deal, called for the opposing sides to cease fire and urged them to pull back their heavy weapons by the end of the week.
Ukraine and NATO have accused the Kremlin of supporting the rebels with troops and weapons. The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia for supporting the rebels, as well as annexing Crimea, which was part of Ukraine.
Whether planned or not, the latest eruptions come amid a shifting political landscape. Among them are President Trump's emerging relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders spoke Saturday for the first time, and Trump has publicly mused about the prospect of easing sanctions against the Kremlin. The sanctions were imposed by the Obama administration over concerns about Russian hacking during the U.S. presidential election.
The escalation “seems to be another reason for the soonest possible resumption of dialogue and cooperation between Russia and America,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's defense minister Stepan Poltorak charged Wednesday that a Ukrainian Navy transport aircraft came under small arms attack over the Black Sea from a Russian oil rig. He said there were no injuries but the Antonov An026 aircraft was damage, according to Interfax Ukraine.
A spokesman for the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol denied the charge, saying the oil rigs' security guards did not open fire on the plane but gave it flash signals to prevent it hitting a drilling tower, Tass reported.
Ukraine's month-long role as president of the U.N. Security Council will likely give Kiev an opportunity to gauge whether it still has the council’s backing — specifically from the so-called P3 permanent members of France, Britain and the United States — in its claims to Crimea and on addressing instability on its eastern border.
“The P3 have always been rock-solid supportive of Ukraine when it comes to the issue of Crimea,” said Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N. “We have heard remarks of Mr. Trump on Crimea when he was a presidential candidate. But we need to understand that campaign rhetoric and real business may vary.”