Russia raises the ante in Ukraine

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed Russia’s concern Tuesday over the alarming buildup of armed Ukrainian forces that threatens to spark a new conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Lavrov, who was briefing reporters after an emergency meeting of the Russian government’s national security council, called on Kiev to “de-escalate its military confrontation” with the separatists — language that seemed aimed at deterring a potential U.S. military attack on the Russian-backed separatists.

Earlier Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin sharply denounced the recent escalation of tensions along the border between Russia and Ukraine.

Russia “stresses the need to start a sensible dialogue with the authorities in Kiev so that the current situation can be broken, that the situation can be normalized,” Putin said in a Kremlin meeting with the president of Belarus.

But so far, violence has mounted as tensions with Ukraine have spiraled. On Sunday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned that if his military tried to get back territory lost last month to separatists in the east, the result could be a “large-scale war.”

Ukrainian government troops, supported by tanks and other heavy weapons, have been bombarding the separatist stronghold of Luhansk, about 170 miles west of Moscow. On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said Ukrainian forces had destroyed most of the tanks and other armored vehicles in the north of Luhansk. “We are holding on,” he said.

The prospects for continuing such shelling have increased since a U.S. based-company, Raytheon, said last week that it had delivered five Patriot anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. The launch of such missiles would be an escalation of the confrontation between the two countries, and one that would help put U.S. and NATO troops on high alert.

On Monday, Vladimir Smirnov, a Russian, was shot dead after being abducted by rebels, raising the possibility that their freedom would be demanded.

On the Ukraine-Russia border, a column of about 30 Grad missiles and hundreds of heavily armed men, including some from Russian military units, has moved back into the area where they had been stopped after an earlier withdrawal, officials said. One Ukrainian army colonel was killed and 15 others wounded in the recent attack, authorities said.

The security council meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who asked top diplomats and security officials to “effectively put into action the coordinated and planned actions” of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in the Kerch Strait area. He also asked them to “expedite implementation of the ceasefire agreement” signed last week by Poroshenko and Putin.

The threat of Russian troops entering Ukraine and annexation of the province is not new — Moscow launched war in the same area in February.

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