Ukrainian soldier killed in shelling by Russia-backed separatist rebels

A Ukrainian soldier was killed and another seriously wounded in artillery fire from Russia-backed separatist rebels, the Ukrainian military said as hostilities rose sharply in the country’s east.

As of the reported attack on Sunday, Ukraine says 27 soldiers have been killed in the east this year, more than half the number who died in all of 2020.

Russia denies that it has sent troops into eastern Ukraine to help the rebels, but officials say the army could intervene if Ukraine tries to retake the area by force.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on Sunday that “if Russia acts recklessly, or aggressively, there will be costs, there will be consequences”.

In recent weeks, fighting has intensified between Ukraine’s army and pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, with signs of a Russian troop build-up in the region raising concerns of major escalation in the long-running conflict.

Ukraine has accused Russia of amassing thousands of military personnel on its northern and eastern borders as well as on the annexed Crimean peninsula.

The Kremlin said on Sunday it was not moving towards war with Ukraine, but that it “will not remain indifferent” to the fate of Russian speakers in the conflict-torn region.

Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting in eastern Ukraine since shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The conflict in Ukraine’s east has killed more than 13,000 people and turned into a nagging problem in Moscow’s relations with the West.

Fighting has subsided in the past few years but a diplomatic solution to settle the eastern region’s status has stayed out of reach.

Crimea is still recognised as part of Ukraine by the United Nations, and Kyiv says it will one day win it back.