Russia has blamed Kiev authorities for the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine that has left dozens dead in recent days, despite mounting evidence that a missile attack on a residential suburb of Mariupol on Saturday in which 30 died was carried out by Russia-backed militants.
Casualty numbers and bellicose rhetoric have increased on both sides in recent days. After a mortar attack on a trolley bus stop killed at least eight in the rebel capital, Donetsk, on Thursday, the Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko said there would be no more ceasefires and promised a rebel advance to take swaths of territory currently held by Kiev.
On Saturday Zakharchenko announced that an assault on Mariupol had begun, but when the scale of the morning’s tragedy became clear he quickly withdrew his words, saying “nobody is planning to storm Mariupol”. A rebel spokesman claimed Ukraine had fired the missiles by mistake, despite a Human Rights Watch expert and international monitors both examining the craters and confirming that the missiles had been fired from rebel-held territory.
Russia’s foreign ministry was slow to make any statement on the attack, and when it did it blamed Kiev for the upsurge in fighting. Russia also blocked a UN security council statement condemning the rebels for their announcement that they were on the attack.
A statement on Sunday said the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had told his US counterpart John Kerry during a phone conversation that government forces were “constantly shelling” residential areas.
“Sergei Lavrov pointed out that an escalation of the situation is a result of Ukrainian troops crudely violating the Minsk agreements by constantly shelling residential settlements,” the ministry said.
There was no direct mention of the incident in Mariupol. Lavrov said Russia was willing to do everything to bring peace to Ukraine.
Alexei Pushkov, a foreign policy official, suggested the Mariupol attack was a “false flag” operation launched by Kiev.
“In Ukraine, any provocation is possible,” Pushkov tweeted. “Let’s remember the Boeing, it was shot down with a clear political aim. Those people who shot it down will not stop at anything.”
The evidence suggests that the downing of aMalaysian Airlines Boeing last July was caused by rebels using a BUK missile system supplied from Russia, but Moscow has claimed the plane was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet. Moscow also denies it has any soldiers fighting in Ukraine, while Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, claims there are 9,000.
Attention is now both on Mariupol, which some analysts have suggested Moscow might want to take in order to create a land corridor from Russia to Crimea and the town of Debaltseve, where thousands of Ukrainian forces are close to being surrounded by a rebel advance.
“The situation on the frontline is critical,” said Andriy Biletsky, leader of the Azov volunteer battalion, in a statement. The battalion has been criticised for its far-right associations but has coordinated the defence of Mariupol over the past few months. “The time has come to take an important decision as a people: to survive or die. If we die it’s all simple, but to live we need to fight.”
Ukraine’s defence minister said the Azov battalion would be equipped with heavy weaponry. The volunteer battalions have done much of the fighting for Kiev but have been criticised for operating outside the law.