Amid rising tensions, Ukraine opens criminal probe of top Russian officials

Ukraine has launched a criminal investigation of 20 senior Russian officials for crimes against Ukraine's national security, as fighting between Ukraine's government and pro-Russian separatists intensifies in the country's east.

Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a wall mural showing a Russian state flag and text reading 'All will be well, Tavrida,' as he visits the youth educational forum 'Tavrida' in the Bakal Spit in Crimea, Friday. Mr. Putin accused the Ukrainian government of sabotaging peace accords for the country's east during his visit to the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.

Ukraine has launched a criminal investigation of 20 senior Russian officials, alleging their involvement in crimes against Ukraine's national security, said Ukraine's Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko on Monday. 

Ukrainian authorities plan to seek international arrest warrants for the officials, including Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and two of his deputies, Kremlin economic advisor Sergei Glazyev, and a former presidential envoy to Crimea, Mr. Lutsenko said. 

The announcement comes days after Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the Ukrainian government of sabotaging peace accords during a visit to Crimea and less than a month after Russian intelligence accused Ukraine of sending agents to Crimea to carry out terror attacks, reflecting growing tensions between the two countries in a conflict that began more than two years ago. 

The conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 9,500 people since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014. In 2015, the fighting was reduced by peace accords signed in Minsk, Belarus. But tensions are on the rise since Russia claimed to have caught a group of Ukrainian saboteurs in Crimea earlier this month. 

At the start of this year, it looked as though Russia was making an increased effort to resolve the crisis, as the Christian Science Monitor's Fred Weir reported

President Vladimir Putin appears to have put his best advisers on the case, bolstering hopes that 2016 will be the year the stalled Minsk II agreements, negotiated by France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine to bring peace to war-ravaged eastern Ukraine, gain real traction....

Experts say that suggests the Kremlin is tiring of the long stalemate over the war-torn Donbass region, and is readying for a concerted push to solve remaining issues and prompt an end to the Western sanctions that even Mr. Putin admits are "severely harming" Russia's economy.

But as tensions have escalated again, so has the violence. The Ukrainian president's office said on Thursday that three troops had been killed and six wounded in eastern Ukraine, leading President Petro Poroshenko to warn that martial law and military mobilization could be imposed if the fighting worsened.

That same day, Russian naval and land forces took part in a logistics exercise in moving military hardware and troops to Crimea. On Friday, one day after staging war games there, President Putin flew into Crimea and voiced his hope that Ukraine would use "common sense" in resolving the diplomatic crisis.

Meanwhile, as the fighting rages on and politicians struggle to reach peace, locals in Crimea lament the quality of life on the peninsula since its annexation, as they say prices have skyrocketed while wages and pensions have stagnated, and tourists are nowhere to be found. 

A Russian-built bridge connecting Crimea and southern Russia in the works, though trucks won't be able to drive across it until 2018 at the earliest. Russia has announced plans to invest 680 billion rubles (about $10 billion) in Crimea between now and 2020. 

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press. 

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