Russia threatens to send more arms to separatists in Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatist forces training in eastern Ukraine on Dec 14, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) - Russia suggested it could send "certain weapons" to the separatists it backs in Ukraine's Donbas region, signalling a potential escalation in the tensions with the West.

The proposal came from Mr Andrey Turchak, a top official of the pro-Kremlin ruling party who's also a senior member of the Senate, though there was no immediate public comment from the government.

Russia has backed the separatists since the conflict first broke out in 2014 but denies Ukrainian and Western allegations it provides military support.

Russian officials have stepped up accusations in recent weeks that Kiev is planning to retake the breakaway regions by force, something Ukraine denies.

Legislators in Parliament have also proposed Russia formally recognise the territories, which would effectively doom the long-running diplomatic effort to re-integrate them into Ukraine known as the Minsk process. That proposal hasn't been formally scheduled for consideration, however.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia's commitment to the Minsk agreements when asked Wednesday (Jan 26) about the possibility of arms deliveries, but he didn't specifically address the proposals.

Openly arming the separatists would undermine Russia's claims - rejected by Ukraine and the West - that it's not a party to the conflict.

A senior Kremlin official later downplayed Mr Turchak's remarks. Mr Dmitry Kozak, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a key negotiator on Ukraine, said Mr Turchak had not sought advice before making his comments.

"There have been many initiatives on this issue," he added. "We have stopped a lot of them."

Russia has issued more than 500,000 passports to residents of the separatist regions since 2014 and Mr Lavrov reiterated vows to defend them in the event they come under attack. Fighting in the area has killed 14,000 people since 2014, according to the United Nations.

Mr Turchak cited what he called Nato efforts to train and arm Ukraine's military, along with continuing shelling and civilian casualties along the front line with the separatists, as justifying the need for additional arms supplies. He didn't specify what weapons should be delivered.

Ukraine's Security Service said Wednesday it had already found new evidence of weapons deliveries to the separatists from Russia, including mines, mortars and explosives.

The latest moves come as both Russia and the West have stepped up threats over Ukraine, with the US putting thousands of troops on alert for possible deployment to Europe and sending weapons to Kiev while Russia continues its buildup of more than 100,000 troops near the border.

Moscow denies it plans to invade. The West has threatened punishing economic sanctions, though not military intervention, if it does.

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