Ukraine slams Russia's 'open' threats, vows firm response

Kiev (AFP) –


Ukraine on Thursday accused Russia of flagrantly threatening it with destruction and warned Moscow that any escalation of fighting would be met with a firm military response.

Tensions have risen once again in the long-simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled pro-Russian separatists since 2014.

Kiev and its Western allies this week have sounded the alarm over a huge build-up of Russian military personnel along Ukraine's northern and eastern borders, as well as on the Crimean peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014.

During a press conference Thursday, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said rhetoric in Moscow had reached a fever pitch with pundits and officials issuing "dehumanising" statements aimed at intimidating Kiev.

"They are openly threatening Ukraine with war and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood," Kuleba told reporters at a press conference with counterparts from former Soviet countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

"The red line of Ukraine is the state border. If Russia crosses the red line, then it will have to suffer," Kuleba added.

The visit to Ukraine from senior diplomats from the Baltic states is the latest show of support for Kiev from European countries and the United States, which has promised "unwavering" backing.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis reiterated that support Thursday telling reporters "Ukraine will never be on its own."

"We stand with you, we stand in solidarity," he said.

- 'We are not afraid' -

The display of solidarity follows US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreeing on Thursday to call on Russia to reduce its troops on the border with Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy was also expected to travel to Paris on Friday to discuss the rising tensions with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.

Kuleba's warning to Russia on Thursday comes after international observers to the conflict said late Wednesday that there had been a dramatic increase in recent violations that was hindering their work.

"The number of violations recorded over the past two weeks has reached its highest level this year and was three times higher than over the same period before," monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said in a statement.

An uptick in fighting since the start of the year has seen Moscow and Kiev blaming each other for the rise in violence between government forces and separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine says the spate of clashes has cost the lives of at least 28 Ukrainian servicemen and left at least another 68 wounded since January.

It warned this week that 28,000 separatist fighters and more than 2,000 Russian military instructors and advisers are currently stationed in eastern Ukraine, while nearly 33,000 soldiers are deployed in Crimea.

Russia's defence ministry, however, said those troops were merely responding to "threatening" NATO actions by participating in military drills that would conclude in three weeks.

The uptick in fighting has left in tatters a ceasefire brokered last July that had brought relative calm to the conflict.

"We are not afraid. Ukraine itself is strong enough and has reliable friends to defend its statehood," Kuleba said Thursday.

"It is important to make Russia clearly understand that the consequences in the event of military adventures on its part will be very painful."