The Kremlin has warned Ukraine that all-out war in its eastern Donbas region would be the “beginning of the end” for the country and that Russia would send troops into the area if its residents face the threat of major bloodshed.
Shelling between government forces and Moscow-led separatists in Donbas has intensified in recent weeks, and Kiev and its western allies have expressed alarm over a significant build-up of Russian troops and armour close to eastern Ukraine and in Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014.
In a phone call with German chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday, Russian president Vladimir Putin “drew attention to the provocative actions of Kiev which is now deliberately aggravating the situation” in Donbas, and urged Ukraine to start direct talks with the separatists to “formalise the special status” of the region, the Kremlin said.
Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of Mr Putin’s administration, said “the start of military action would be the beginning of the end for Ukraine . . . It would be a self-inflicted wound, like shooting yourself not in the foot but in the head.”
He also echoed lurid claims from Mr Putin that Ukraine could witness something similar to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre – when Bosnian Serb forces massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslims – if Ukraine’s army entered separatist-held Donbas, even though areas that it previously retook saw no such violence.
“Today everything depends on how big the fire will be. If, as our president says, a ‘Srebrenica’ happens there, then evidently we will be forced to stand in defence,” Mr Kozak warned.
Satellite images and footage posted on social media give credence to claims that a large contingent of Russian troops and armour has moved towards Ukraine and Crimea in recent days, but the Kremlin insists that such activity is not a threat to any country.
The EU, US and Nato have urged Russia to end the military build-up, and Dr Merkel’s office said she “called for a reduction of these troop reinforcements to de-escalate tensions” in her conversation with Mr Putin.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited frontline positions in Donbas on Thursday, after the military announced the death of its 11th soldier in the last fortnight.
“I want to be with our soldiers in the tough times in Donbas. Going to the locations of the escalation. RIP to the 23-year-old soldier who was shot last night. Ukraine needs peace and will do everything for this,” Mr Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter.
Mr Zelenskiy has made little headway on pledges to crush corruption, ease widespread poverty and end the war since taking power in 2019, and some analysts see his recent adoption of a tougher line towards Donbas and pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine as a bid to boost his sagging ratings.
Commentators also see potential political benefits for Mr Putin in stoking tension in Donbas, as he seeks to push back against pressure from new US president Joe Biden and mounting western sanctions, and divert domestic attention away from Russia’s sluggish economy, corruption allegations and the Kremlin’s crackdown on opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his allies.