Russian President Vladimir Putin says a "NATO legion" is fighting against rebel forces in eastern Ukraine, and that its goal is to contain Russia.
“We often say: Ukrainian army, Ukrainian army. But who is really fighting [in eastern Ukraine]? There are official divisions of the armed forces but to a great extent there are so-called voluntary nationalist battalions. This is not even an army, it's a foreign legion. In this case it's a foreign NATO legion,” Putin said, speaking before university students in the city of St. Petersburg.
Separatists Area of Control in Ukraine
“[They are there] with the aim of geopolitically containing Russia, which is absolutely not in the national interests of the Ukrainian people,” he said.
Putin also accused Kyiv of refusing to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine peacefully.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed Putin's claim as "nonsense."
"The statement that there is a NATO legion in Ukraine is nonsense. There is no NATO legion," Stoltenberg said Monday, speaking to reporters following an extraordinary meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. "The foreign forces in Ukraine are Russian," he added.
‘Stop destabilizing Ukraine’
Stoltenberg also called on Russia to stop destabilizing Ukraine and join efforts to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis in the country’s east.
“We call on Russia to stop its support for the separatists immediately, to stop destabilizing Ukraine and to respect its international commitments,” said he.
Ukrainian servicemen guard their position in the village of Luhanska, Luhansk region, Jan. 24, 2015.
The extraordinary meeting was reportedly called at Ukraine’s request in the wake of a recent attack on the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, Donetsk region. The Saturday attack, which targeted residential areas, killed 30 civilians and wounded around 100.
“The attack was launched from territory controlled by separatists backed by Russia,” Stoltenberg said.
The NATO chief added that in recent weeks Russia has supplied the rebels with hundreds of pieces of advanced equipment, including rocket systems, heavy artillery, tanks, armored vehicles and electronic warfare systems.
Honor Minsk agreements
Stoltenberg called on “all parties to continue all efforts without delay to achieve a peaceful solution, in full conformity with the Minsk agreements,” referring to a truce deal signed by the warring sides in September, and adding that “NATO continues its full support for Ukraine's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders."
Ukraine is not a NATO member but has upped its cooperation with the alliance since Russia annexed Crimea in March of last year. NATO has also set up several trust funds to help Ukraine improve its security forces in the face of what Kyiv and the West see as a Moscow-instigated rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
Earlier Monday, Ukraine's military said seven of its soldiers had been killed in the past day during renewed fighting. Officials say at least 24 soldiers have been wounded in the violence.
The recent escalation in fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia rebels in the east has prompted Ukraine's government put the country on high alert Monday.
Possible violation of international law
Later Monday, United Nations political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman told the Security Council during an emergency meeting on Ukraine that since Mariupol, site of the Saturday rocket attacks, lies outside of the "immediate conflict zone" in eastern Ukraine, the conclusion can be drawn "that the entity which fired these rockets knowingly targeted a civilian population."
That, he said, would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, for which the perpetrators must be brought to justice.
"Mariupol lies outside of the immediate conflict zone. The conclusion can thus be drawn that the entity which fired these rockets knowingly targeted a civilian population. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law. We must send an unequivocal message. The perpetrators must be held accountable and brought to justice," Feltman said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the rebels in eastern Ukraine had acted with the aim of destroying Ukrainian military positions from which he said heavy weapons were firing on populated areas. He said "tragedies" like the rocket attack in Mariupol are being used to fuel "anti-Russian hysteria."
Specter of new sanctions
One senior U.S. official tells VOA Russia is “shamelessly inserting people and equipment" -- just enough to keep Ukraine from stabilizing.
For now though, the U.S. response is likely to be more economic sanctions.
"We have more tools. I am not today going to enumerate what the tools are, but we have more tools," Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on Monday.
Lew says Russia is already being hit with some of the most sophisticated sanctions ever designed -- taking a big toll on the Russian economy.
But U.S. Democratic Senator Christoper Murphy says the use of sanctions is no longer enough.
“I now believe we have to provide some significant level of defensive armaments to the Ukraine military," he said. "I think that they are at a point when they can operationalize that technology. I hope that will be a part of the discussion in the coming weeks and months.”
On Sunday in expressing concern about the Mariupol attack and what he sees as Russian backing of the separatists, U.S. President Obama said he would "ratchet up" pressure on Moscow.
"We are deeply concerned about the latest break in the [Ukrainian] cease-fire and the aggression that these separatists, with Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops, are conducting. And we will continue to take the approach that we have taken in the past, which is to ratchet up the pressure on Russia, and I will look at all additional options that are available to us short of military confrontation and try to address this issue."
Some European leaders have recently talked of easing economic sanctions against Moscow. But Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister who currently serves as president of the European Union, tweeted in a message, "Once again, appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence. Time to step up our policy based on cold facts, not illusions."
EU foreign ministers are to discuss the latest violence in Ukraine on Thursday.
VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from Reuters.