KIEV: Ukraine put its forces around Crimea on high alert on Thursday, as tensions soared after Moscow accused Kiev of attempting to mount armed incursions into the disputed peninsula.
Russia’s FSB security service said on Wednesday it had thwarted “terrorist attacks” in Crimea this week by Ukrainian military intelligence and beaten back armed assaults, but Kiev fiercely denied the claims.
The allegations ratcheted up the heat in a feud sparked by Moscow’s 2014 seizure of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine and raised fears of a wider conflict.
In a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council, Kiev asked Moscow to provide evidence to back up its accusations of a terror plot, Ukrainian Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko told reporters.
“If it happened in reality, where are the proofs? Statements, pictures, photos, videos, whatever,” Yelchenko said.
“They are only words.”
Ukraine’s pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko earlier met his top brass and ordered forces along the frontier with Crimea and across the conflict-wracked east onto “high-alert level”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also met security chiefs to discuss “additional measures for ensuring security for citizens and essential infrastructure in Crimea,” the Kremlin said.
“Scenarios were carefully considered for anti-terrorist security measures at the land border, in the waters and in the airspace of Crimea,” it said.
Meanwhile a NATO official told Agence France-Presse that the US-led military alliance was monitoring the heightened Crimea tensions with concern.
The official, who asked not to be named, said that “Russia’s recent military activity in Crimea is not helpful for easing tensions”, and called on Moscow “to work for calm and de-escalation.”
‘Take a step back’
The United States also called on both sides to show restraint; with State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau saying Washington was “extremely concerned”.
“We call for the avoidance of any actions that would escalate the situation,” Trudeau said, urging a return to the negotiating table.
“Take a step back.”
Russia’s FSB security service said one of its officers was killed in clashes while arresting “terrorists” overnight August 6-7, while a Russian soldier died in a firefight with “sabotage-terrorist” groups sent by the Ukrainian military on August 8.
Putin angrily accused Kiev of “practicing terror” and warned that the deaths of the Russian officers would have consequences.
“We obviously will not let such things slide by,” Putin said. “This is a very dangerous game.”
Russia’s foreign ministry reiterated Thursday that Kiev would not go unpunished.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the West to warn Kiev against “dangerous steps that could have the most negative consequences” in a phone call with his French counterpart, the ministry said.
Poroshenko on Wednesday called Moscow’s claims “senseless and cynical.”
“Fantasies are only another pretext for the next military threats toward Ukraine,” he said.
Two residents living on the Russian-controlled side of the Crimea-Ukraine frontier told AFP there had been an unexplained build-up of Russian military hardware in the area over the past few weeks.
Russia is holding nationwide legislative elections next month — including in Crimea — and the FSB said the alleged raids could be aimed at destabilizing the situation ahead of the vote.
A senior Ukrainian security official told AFP that Moscow’s claims were a “crude Russian provocation” and that Kiev was “getting ready for anything,” including an invasion.
Russia says it has detained several Ukrainian and Russian citizens over the incident, including an alleged Ukrainian military intelligence officer named Yevgen Panov. Kiev has called Panov a “hostage”.
Russian television showed FSB footage of Panov being questioned, with several cuts and bruises visible on his face and arm.
He said he was recruited by Ukraine’s military intelligence, with the planned targets a ferry, a helicopter regiment, an oil depot and a chemical factory.
Moscow and Kiev have been locked in a bitter dispute since the Kremlin seized Crimea in March 2014 after Ukraine’s Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted.
The crisis sent ties between Moscow and the West plunging to their lowest point since the Cold War and led to tough economic sanctions by the European Union and the United States against Russia.
The latest war of words represents the most serious increase in tensions in months as a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine — that Kiev and the West blame on Moscow — drags on despite a stalled peace deal.
More than 9,500 people have been killed since the pro-Russian insurgency erupted in April 2014.
Putin said a mooted meeting with Poroshenko and mediators German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande at next month’s G20 summit in China was now “senseless”.
Independent Russian daily Vedomosti wrote in an op-ed that Moscow has tended to ramp up tensions ahead of negotiations over Ukraine.
“The main political question now is what is the future of the Minsk process,” the paper wrote, referring to the peace deal hammered out in the Belarussian capital in February 2015.
“Will Russia bring an end to it or demand new concessions?”