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Ukraine Clashes Test Trump's Russia Policy -- WSJ

4 Feb 2017 7:32 am

Heaviest fighting since 2014; Kiev, Kremlin accuse each other of instigating violence
By Alan Cullison 

KIEV, Ukraine -- A reprise in deadly fighting between Moscow-backed separatists and government troops in eastern Ukraine may provide the first major test for President Donald Trump's plans to warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Artillery fire from separatist strongholds has killed at least 13 Ukrainian soldiers since last weekend in some of the most intense fighting since the outbreak of hostilities in 2014, a Ukrainian military spokesman said Friday.

More than 70 soldiers have been wounded and thousands of civilians have been displaced around the industrial city of Avdiivka, where some 17,000 people, including 2,500 children, have been left without heat, water or electricity.

Attempts at a cease-fire have broken down, and artillery exchanges have broken out along broader areas of the 250-mile front separating Ukrainian troops and rebels near the border with Russia.

Both sides have in recent days moved heavy artillery and equipment into the conflict zone, in clear violation of a peace accord hammered out in Minsk two years ago.

The mounting hostilities prompted North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to call on Russia to rein in separatists that they have provided with military and other support.

"We see a very dire humanitarian situation," Mr. Stoltenberg told reporters in Pristina, Kosovo. "We call on Russia to use its considerable influence with the separatists."

Moscow has denied any responsibility for the renewed fighting, and Mr. Putin accused Ukrainian leaders in Kiev of playing the victim in order to extract aid from the U.S. and Europe.

"The Ukrainian leadership today needs money, and the best way to extort money is from the European Union, from certain countries in Europe, from the United States and international institutions, presenting itself as a victim of aggression," he said at a press conference in Budapest on Thursday.

Mr. Trump, who spoke with Mr. Putin hours before the renewal of fighting last weekend, has said he wants better cooperation with Russia and has called Mr. Putin an effective leader. But his views toward Russia appear to diverge with many of his advisers.

The renewed fighting prompted his newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, to sharplydenounce Russia's aggression in Ukraine. In her first public address at the U.N., on Thursday night, Ms. Haley said that it was "unfortunate" that she had to level criticism, but that "the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions" and that "this escalation of violence must stop."

Ukrainian officials say fighting broke out early Sunday morning with a two-hour barrage of heavy artillery that wasfollowed by a ground offensive by 50 to 60 separatist troops.

The attack was repelled, but separatists then brought in more heavy artillery and tanks, and fighting has spread to other parts of the battle front since then, said Vilyen Pidgorny, a spokesman for Ukraine's presidential administration.

Mr. Pidgorny said the attack bore hallmarks of a serious offensive because rebels deployed some unusual weaponry recently developed in Russia, including an electronic telephone hacking system that sent text messages to the mobile phones of Ukrainian soldiers urging them to surrender, and drones manufactured in the Russian Urals region that conveyed targets directly to heavy artillery batteries. "These are unusual instruments for them to be using," he said.

The Ukrainian official said Russia bore responsibility for the deterioration. "I stress that it is completely wrong to say that Russia does not support the militants -- every unit has Russian military personnel who perform orders of the Russian Federation," he said in a statement Friday.

The separatists blamed Ukraine for starting the renewed clashes. Moscow denies arming pro-Russia separatists inside Ukraine, and insists rebels supply themselves with equipment looted from captured Ukrainian military bases. On Friday, a spokeswoman for Russia's foreign ministry criticized Ukraine's military in eastern Ukraine, which she said had broken "all moral norms" with heavy artillery strikes on civilians in the eastern city of Donetsk.

The spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said that "several civilians were killed and many -- children among them -- suffered wounds."

Mr. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, likewise denied Russia held any responsibility for fighting, shrugged off criticism of Russian in the U.N. Although there was widespread celebration of Mr. Trump's victory in Moscow in November, the Kremlin has lately downplayed high hopes for improvement in relations.

"I want to note that we have never indulged in excessive optimism, and talked about this from the beginning," Mr. Peskov said.

Write to Alan Cullison at alan.cullison@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 04, 2017 02:32 ET (07:32 GMT)

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