Ukraine rules out armed offensive against Russia-backed rebels in the east

Ukraine ruled of offensive against Russia-backed separatists controlling two regions in the east, as fears grow of a significant escalation in a long-running conflict.

The statement came on Friday after fighting between the Ukrainian army and separatists intensified in recent weeks and Russia massed troops on the border.

“The liberation of the temporarily occupied territories by force will inevitably lead to the death of a large number of civilians and casualties among the military, which is unacceptable for Ukraine,” Ruslan Khomchak, chief of the general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said in a statement.

He accused Moscow of using “intimidation and blackmail by military force” to exacerbate the situation.

“Ukraine is supported by the entire civilised world. We are not alone in the face of the enemy,” Khomchak added.

On Friday, the Kremlin said it feared the resumption of full-scale fighting in eastern Ukraine and could take steps to protect civilians there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement: “The Kremlin has fears that a civil war could resume in Ukraine, and if a civil war, a full-scale military action resumes near our borders that would threaten the Russian Federation’s security.”

The White House said on Thursday the number of Russian troops at the border with Ukraine was now greater “than at any time since 2014” when war in eastern Ukraine first broke out after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.

Amid the intensifying fighting, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday visited the eastern front line, where he spent the night.

Zelenskyy has urged NATO to speed up his country’s membership into the alliance to support Ukraine, said on Thursday he had visited positions where Ukrainian troops were killed and wounded in recent weeks.

He said 26 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since the start of the year, compared with 50 in all of 2020.

The conflict in Ukraine’s mainly Russian-speaking east has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that Ukraine’s NATO bid “wouldn’t only lead to a massive escalation of the situation in the southeast but could also entail irreversible consequences for the Ukrainian statehood”.