Ukraine rebels vow to reinforce troops as US reportedly mulls rearming Kiev (+video)
Separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said he would recruit an additional 100,000 men to fight against Ukraine's government troops. Fighting has intensified in 2015 after a lull at the end of the year.
The New York Times reports that the White House is taking a “fresh look at the question of military aid” after a string of strategic loses by Ukrainian forces. Support for the plan has grown as US officials realize that economic sanctions are seemingly not enough to dissuade Russia from pouring weapons and military personnel into the conflict. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied arming the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
"Mobilization will start in 11 days' time," Mr. Zakharchenko told Donetsk news agency, according to the BBC. ”It is a reserve force which will definitely be able to resist any attack," he added.
The Times cites a new report released Monday by eight former senior American officials that urges the US to send $3 billion in defensive arms and equipment to Ukraine. The US has so far limited its support to non-lethal aid such as body armor and night-vision goggles for fear of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The report calls for the US to send equipment such as armored vehicles, anti-armor missiles, and reconnaissance drones. “The West needs to bolster deterrence in Ukraine by raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive,” it says, the Times reports. “That requires providing direct military assistance — in far larger amounts than provided to date and including lethal defensive arms.”
The calls to rearm embattled Kiev come amid a dramatic uptick in violence in eastern Ukraine. The intensified fighting follows a period of relative calm in December. US officials allege that Moscow has sent tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers to the rebels in recent weeks.
Ukraine Defense Ministry Spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told The Associated Press Monday that fighting remains most intense around Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub that is almost entirely encircled by Russia-backed rebels. Officials said five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 29 wounded in the past day defending the city.
Fighting also rages on around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, where 15 civilians were killed in shelling over the weekend, according to a statement released by municipal authorities. About 50 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine in the last two days, Agence France-Presse reports.
The BBC reports that the rebels’ ability to raise large numbers of forces remains unclear. Kiev has alleged that as many as 9,000 Russian troops are fighting alongside them, a claim Moscow has denied.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 5,100 lives since April. NATO says the separatists have captured about 193 square miles of additional territory in the past four months.
The latest attempt at establishing a cease-fire collapsed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk on Saturday when some of the rebel representatives did not show up.