WASHINGTON — The Russian military has moved artillery units manned by Russian personnel inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and is using them to fire at Ukrainian forces, NATO officials said Friday.
The West has long accused Russia of supporting the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, but this is the first time it has said it had evidence of the direct involvement of the Russian military.
The Russian move represents a significant escalation of the Kremlin’s involvement in the fighting there and comes as a convoy of Russian trucks with humanitarian provisions has crossed into Ukrainian territory without Kiev’s permission.
Since mid-August NATO has received multiple reports of the direct involvement of Russian forces, “including Russian airborne, air defense and special operations forces in Eastern Ukraine,” said Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO.
“Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” she added.
NATO’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, criticized the Russian moves in a statement issued in Brussels on Friday.
“I condemn the entry of a Russian so-called humanitarian convoy into Ukrainian territory without the consent of the Ukrainian authorities and without any involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross,” Rasmussen’s statement said.
“These developments are even more worrying as they coincide with a major escalation in Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine since mid-August, including the use of Russian forces,” the statement continued, adding: “We have also seen transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery to separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, NATO is observing an alarming buildup of Russian ground and air forces in the vicinity of Ukraine.”
Also Friday, more than 200 trucks from a long-stalled Russian convoy said to be carrying humanitarian aid crossed the border into eastern Ukraine without Red Cross escorts, drawing angry accusations from Ukraine that Moscow had broken its word and mounted what a senior Ukrainian security official called a “direct invasion.”
At a news briefing in Washington, the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, condemned the convoy as an “unauthorized entry into Ukraine” and called for the vehicles’ immediate withdrawal.
But Ukraine stepped back from earlier threats to use “all forces available” to halt any Russian vehicles that crossed the frontier without its full accord, and President Petro Poroshenko assured the visiting foreign minister of Lithuania that “we will do our best to ensure that this did not lead to more serious consequences.”
The comments by Poroshenko, however, suggested that Ukraine would limit its response to verbal protests and not use force against the Russian vehicles.
The arrival of the first Russian aid trucks in Ukrainian territory nonetheless sharply raised tensions between the two estranged neighbors ahead of talks next Tuesday between Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are scheduled to meet, along with officials from the European Union, in the Belarus capital of Minsk.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a long statement in Moscow saying in essence that it had authorized the crossing because it was fed up with stalling by the government in Kiev. Russian news agencies quoted a spokesman for Putin as saying that he “had been informed” of the convoy’s movements.
“All the excuses to delay the delivery of aid to people in the area of a humanitarian catastrophe are exhausted,” the ministry said. “The Russian side has made a decision to act. Our column with humanitarian cargo starts moving toward Luhansk.”
The trucks are traveling toward Luhansk, a besieged rebel-held city that has come under heavy pressure in recent days from Ukrainian forces.
Spreading the conspicuously large, white aid trucks through Luhansk could effectively impose a cease-fire, essentially daring the Ukrainians to fire at vehicles that have been sent to provide humanitarian assistance.
Andriy Lysenko, Ukraine’s military spokesman, speaking at a news conference in Kiev, warned that Ukraine had no responsibility for the safety of Russian trucks traveling in rebel-controlled territory.
“This is a provocation,” Lysenko said. “They expect us to attack the convoy.”Michael Gordon of the New York Times contributed to this report.