KRAMATORSK, Ukraine â Shelling from both Ukrainian military and rebel separatist positions continued Wednesday over a remote border checkpoint northwest of Luhansk that Ukraine said was seized Monday by Russian troops, a chief spokesman for the Ukrainian military said.
With President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine claiming that thousands of additional Russian troops had crossed into Ukraine and engaged directly with Ukrainian forces, attention has shifted from the battle over the battered airport at Donetsk to this fresh front on the main road to the city of Luhansk, 90 miles northeast of Donetsk.
Lt. Col. Roman Turovets, a Ukrainian military spokesman at the base here, the main one in the conflict area, said that Ukraine believed the soldiers it was engaging near the small town of Krymske, northwest of Luhansk, were highly trained Russian regulars, based on their tactics, their weaponry and on intelligence.
Checkpoint 31, on an access road into Luhansk, had been bombarded by shelling for most of Tuesday, Colonel Turovets said. Then late in the afternoon darkness, and under cover of heavy fog, the suspected Russian forces were able to drive away the Ukrainians, who suffered no casualties.
Credit Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press
In response, Ukraine began to shell the position and there was an exchange of fire that continued through Wednesday.
Russia, as it has since the conflict started last year, denied any involvement in the Ukraine fighting others than the possible participation of Russian âvolunteersâ wishing to aid the separatists. The foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, challenged Ukraine to âpresent the proofâ if Russian troops were really in Ukraine.
âThe people who attacked, they were very professional,â said Colonel Turovets, the Ukrainian spokesman. âOur troops could tell they were well-trained, from how they moved, how they regrouped.â
In Berlin on Wednesday, Mr. Lavrov and the foreign ministers of Ukraine, France and Germany were scheduled to meet to try to shore up the crumbling cease-fire in the east. Before the talks began, however, Germanyâs chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she did not want to âget hopes up too much.â
Russia has proposed that both the separatists and the Ukrainian Army withdraw heavy weaponry from a buffer zone along the front line, to defuse the tension. Ukrainian officials have rebuffed this proposal, saying it is Russia that has been sending artillery and other heavy weapons into the east all along.
Credit Laurent Gillieron/European Pressphoto Agency
On the ground in eastern Ukraine, an Associated Press reporter on Wednesday saw pro-Russian rebels driving six self-propelled howitzers, four Grad rocket launchers and 15 tanks toward the front and the battle for Checkpoint 31, not away from it. The tanks were described as in pristine condition.
Also on Wednesday, separatists blew up a bridge near the battle for Checkpoint 31, adding to the dozens of bridges already destroyed by both sides in the swirl of retreats and feints over nine months of fighting.
On Tuesday, a strategic railroad bridge was blown up in Zaporozhye region, far from the front lines, halting at least temporarily shipments of iron ore to steel mills in the port city of Mariupol.
At the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, the Ukrainian president, Mr. Poroshenko, said he would cut short his visit to help oversee the fighting in the east. In a speech, Mr. Poroshenko held up a dented, shrapnel-pocked panel of a public bus in which 13 people died from a rebel rocket strike, trying to drive home to European businessmen, who have grumbled about Western sanctions, the human cost of the war.
Mr. Poroshenko said 9,000 Russian troops were fighting on Ukrainian soil.
âIf this is not aggression, what is?â he said.
Ukraine also on Wednesday began enforcing a new set of strict rules for crossing between territory controlled by the government in Kiev and territory controlled by the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Only people holding new passes issued by the Ukrainian government would be allowed to pass through any of the seven main crossing points, and those trying to get across on secondary roads would be regarded as in violation of Ukrainian military rules, Colonel Turovets said.
The new passes, however, could be applied for at only a handful of police stations just outside the conflict zone and would then require a 10-day wait before they could be issued. Only civilians with a clear reason for crossing the border would be given the passes, Ukraine officials said
The effect would be to seal up the border in the coming days, if the new rules are enforced, but would do nothing to shore up the porous border with Russia.
âWhat people donât always realize is that there are several hundred kilometers of border with Russia that is not controlled, ” Colonel Turovets said, allowing Russian drug smugglers and potential terrorists to come into Ukraine. âSo that is why we put tougher conditions on this line,â he said.
If that caused more hardship for civilians inside the conflict zone, that was the fault of the Russians and not the Ukrainian military, he said.
âEverybody understands if there were no Russian mercenaries in Ukraine then this war would have been over long ago,â he said.