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Fears Mount of Full-scale Ukraine-Russia Clash


FILE - Ukrainian military servicemen control their position during a cease-fire outside Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine, April 16, 2016.

FILE - Ukrainian military servicemen control their position during a cease-fire outside Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine, April 16, 2016.

The sound of battle has long gone. But the ghosts remain in Ukraine's Independence Square, where more than two years ago police and protesters clashed for weeks amid acrid black fumes billowing from burning tires.

In Ukraine's Maidan where sniper rounds once cracked, there are now foreign tourists. Where 53 people were slain either with clean shots by expert marksmen or gunned down at closer range by less skillful assassins, there are now snaking lines of school kids visiting from other Ukrainian cities.

The kids listen in various states of indifference or interest to the guides explaining the events that led to the ouster of President Vladimir Putin's satrap Viktor Yanukovych.

That ouster triggered the Russian land-grab of Crimea and what Ukrainian and Western officials say is Moscow-fomented separatism in the country's mainly Russian-speaking eastern region of Donbas.

FILE - Memorials mark the spots where demonstrators were massacred during the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Kyiv. (L. Ramirez / VOA)

FILE - Memorials mark the spots where demonstrators were massacred during the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Kyiv. (L. Ramirez / VOA)

For all of the calm now in Maidan, Ukrainian officials fear the Kremlin is limbering up for another destabilizing offensive in the east. They say it is part of Moscow's hybrid war involving dirty tricks and misinformation to snap Ukraine back into the Russian orbit and prolong a state of uncertainty to hinder the government in Kyiv from accomplishing the political reforms Maidan protesters demanded.

Mounting tensions

And tensions are increasing, not only in the Donbas but on the Ukraine-Crimea frontier following the off-and-on closure over the weekend of all three border crossings by Russia. Kyiv accused Moscow on Tuesday of stepping up military activity on the Crimean peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014 within weeks of Yanukovych's fall. More helicopter gunship sorties reportedly are being flown along the border, as well as surveillance drone flights.

Ukraine's general staff is reinforcing units in Kherson, the Ukrainian region bordering Crimea, and residents say they have spotted anti-tank rocket launchers being transported by Ukrainian forces.

The Russians also are building up in Crimea. The deputy chairman of the outlawed Crimean Tatars' Mejlis, or council, Nariman Dzhelalov, wrote on his Facebook page August 7: "Witnesses report that large groups of Russian military hardware have been massed near Armyansk and Dzhankoy [in northern Crimea]."

On Wednesday, Russia's Federal Security Service claimed it had thwarted an armed Ukrainian incursion into Crimea that aimed to sabotage critical infrastructure. The FSB said a Russian soldier and an intelligence employee had been killed in clashes, and a group of Ukrainian saboteurs had been arrested.

That drew a curt denial from Yuriy Tandit, an adviser to Ukraine's security service SSU. "Ukraine is not trying to regain Crimea by force," he said.

The mounting tensions along Ukraine's border with Crimea coincide with a weeks-long uptick in fighting in the Donbas, where a Ukrainian soldier was killed Monday and five others wounded.

FILE - A local woman reacts next to her destroyed home after shelling in pro-Russian rebels-controlled Staromykhaylivka village near of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 24, 2016.

FILE - A local woman reacts next to her destroyed home after shelling in pro-Russian rebels-controlled Staromykhaylivka village near of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 24, 2016.

To the outside world, the confrontation in the Donbas is another one of Moscow's "frozen conflicts" subverting former Soviet countries on Russia's periphery, such as Georgia and Moldova, and blocking them from moving on from their Communist pasts — and, in Ukraine's case, from joining Western institutions.

Frozen isn't how it feels for Ukrainians living or fighting in the east more than two years after pro-Moscow separatists seized government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk, and 18 months since Ukraine and Russia concluded an armistice, known as Minsk 2.

Rising violence, civilian deaths

U.N. officials worry at the rising civilian casualty toll: in June, 57 people were wounded and a dozen killed. Last month, eight civilians were killed and 65 injured.

Monitoring groups suspect the numbers of civilian casualties are higher. July was an especially deadly month for Ukraine's military, with 42 soldiers killed and 181 wounded.

Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a spokesman for Ukraine's presidential administration, says that from Sunday to Monday, pro-Moscow separatists launched 47 attacks on Ukrainian positions; more than 50 attacks were recorded Monday to Tuesday.

FILE - A partially damaged billboard with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a roadside near Simferopol, Crimea, Jan. 24, 2016. The billboard reads: "Crimea. Russia. Forever."

FILE - A partially damaged billboard with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a roadside near Simferopol, Crimea, Jan. 24, 2016. The billboard reads: "Crimea. Russia. Forever."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed Ukraine for the jump in fighting, claiming he is "seriously concerned" about the escalating violence.

Some Ukrainian officials worry the increased violence is a prelude to full-scale fighting and the world may be witnessing the start of another land-grab launched by Russia during an Olympics. They point out it was during the Winter Olympics in the southern Russia city of Sochi in 2014 that Putin and his generals planned the annexation of Crimea.

‘Something bigger’

Other analysts and Ukrainian officials suspect what is happening in Donbas is part of a two-year destabilizing pattern that has seen a rise in provocation, only to be followed by a period of quiet. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) accuse both sides of violating the cease-fire.

Motuzyanyk told VOA that Kyiv is only responding to Moscow-directed provocation. He says the separatist and Russian forces number 45,000 on Ukrainian territory, a mixture of local recruits, former Russian servicemen and current Russian military.

And he argues the separatists' political leaders are "just puppets and have no say about what happens." He adds, "The military forces are commanded directly by Moscow."

The Ukraine spokesman says, "It is disappointing to see the Russians using heavy artillery again. It is summer now and it easier to move vehicles and to launch military actions. And there is a huge possibility we might see something bigger, but we have large forces along the contact line. And in order to breach it, they would have to amass even more forces."

Both sides appear readying for that "something bigger" by redeploying forces.

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