WASHINGTON — On a day that the Ukrainian government announced a unilateral cease-fire in its battle with separatists in the country’s east, the Obama administration raised the stakes with Russia, accusing the Kremlin of continuing to covertly arm the rebels.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian military, Vladislav Seleznyov, said the cease-fire would begin at 10 p.m. Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, has stressed that the plan hinges on the sealing of the porous border with Russia, to prevent the flow of fighters and arms.
There was no immediate reaction from separatist leaders, but in recent days they have reacted skeptically to the idea of a cease-fire, and many have said they have no intention of putting down their weapons.
The halt in military operations is part of a broader peace plan that Poroshenko has been developing in recent weeks, in consultation with Russia and Western leaders.
In Washington, however, US officials accused Russia of working to undermine the prospects for peace even as President Vladimir Putin consulted with Poroshenko virtually daily on his peace proposal. President Obama warned Putin this month that the West would impose “additional costs” on Russia if its provocations were to continue.
“We have information that Russia has redeployed significant military forces to its border with Ukraine,” a senior Obama administration official told reporters Friday. “Russian special forces are also maintaining points along the Ukrainian border to provide support to separatist fighters.”
The State Department reported last week that three aging, Russian T-64 tanks had been sent to Ukraine, and Ukrainian officials recently told Western officials that 10 more Russian tanks have been provided to Ukrainian separatists. Adding to Western concerns, the senior Obama administration official said, artillery has been moved to a deployment site inside southwest Russia and may soon be shipped across the border.
US officials said Russia was providing older weapons that its forces have phased out but are known to remain in the Ukrainian military’s inventory.
“The desire here is to mask the Russian hand” by allowing Ukrainian separatists to claim the weapons were captured on the battlefield, the administration official said.
The official asked not to be identified by name, in line with the Obama administration’s protocol for briefing reporters.
Putin appears to be calculating that he can continue to provide military support to the separatists without triggering tough economic reprisals as long as the Kremlin denies that it is involved and avoids obvious provocations, like sending conventional Russian military units into eastern Ukraine, US officials said.
To date, the United States and European allies have imposed only limited sanctions, directed at Russian individuals or specific companies, in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and allegations that it is linked to the violence in eastern Ukraine.
The next stage would involve tougher sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy like finance, energy, and defense industries.