LONDON - Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of deploying 9,000 soldiers and 500 tanks on Ukrainian soil, and he is demanding Moscow withdraw its forces and return to the so-called Minsk cease-fire agreement.
Poroshenko, speaking Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, made his boldest accusation yet against Moscow, saying the Russian deployment also included heavy artillery and armored personnel carriers.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance had seen Russian forces present in eastern Ukraine for several months, as well as a "substantial increase" in heavy Russian military equipment in the region.
Stoltenberg said NATO is concerned about "the serious escalation of the fighting" in eastern Ukraine and called for Moscow to end its support for the separatist forces there.
'Blatant land grab'
Echoing statements by Kyiv, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is accusing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine of violating the Minsk truce deal with "a blatant land grab" in new fighting near the Russian border.
Kerry spoke Wednesday alongside European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in Washington. He called the new fighting "an alarming situation," adding that rebels have violated a deal they signed in September by extending their control of disputed territory more than 1,000 square kilometers.
The secretary also said he and Mogherini are in agreement on helping Ukraine do everything possible to rebuild its shattered economy.
Progress in Berlin
Participants in four-way talks on the Ukraine crisis reached agreement Wednesday on establishing security zones between pro-Russian fighters and Kyiv's forces, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Berlin.
"The demarcation line, mentioned in the Minsk protocol, will be the line from which the withdrawal of heavy weaponry should start now,'' Steinmeier said after talks with his counterparts from France, Russia and Ukraine. Putting the withdrawal plan into action, he acknowledged, was a more difficult matter.
In a joint statement, the ministers noted the escalation of fighting in eastern Ukraine and said an effective cease-fire and other tangible progress on the full implementation of the Minsk protocol had to be achieved before a planned summit could take place. A summit had been scheduled for last week but was called off because of renewed fighting.
The four ministers called on signatories of the Minsk peace plan to meet in the coming days to implement the cease-fire and withdrawal of heavy weapons.
For months, a small unit of Ukrainian troops has been defending Donetsk airport from heavily armed Russian-backed fighters. The soldiers have taken on a semi-mythical status; Kyiv’s government calls them “cyborgs.”
Speaking Tuesday, military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said fighting had intensified in recent days, but the airport is still in government hands.
Lysenko said it is difficult at the airport, and a building of the new terminal was partially destroyed. There are wounded “cyborgs,” he said, but added it did not affect the general situation.
The now-devastated shell of Donetsk airport has taken on new importance, said analyst Andy Hundar of the Ukrainian Institute in Britain.
“Ukrainians are seeing this as a symbol for freedom, and defending it from the attackers that are coming over from Russia,” Hundar said.
Using Ukraine as distraction
Russian President Vladimir Putin is sending troops and fighters into Ukraine as a diversion from Russia’s economic crisis, Hundar said.
Putin “is trying to distract attention from his problems, his internal problems — a collapsing economy, oil prices down — and trying to focus on the war in Ukraine,” he said.
The Russian economy is predicted to enter recession this year, while the ruble has halved in value.
In Tuesday's State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama said the Western response to Russia’s aggression is working.
"Mr. Putin’s aggression, it was suggested, was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters,” the president said.
Speaking Wednesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied Russian troops were fighting in Ukraine, and said Moscow was not isolated.
Lavrov said these attempts to isolate Russia will not yield any results. Despite efforts by our Western partners, he added, Putin has made it quite clear that Russia will never follow a path of self-isolation.
Civilian death toll
Meanwhile, the civilian toll grows in Ukraine.
In Donetsk, a funeral was held Tuesday for a 4-year-old boy killed in his home by rocket fire. His mother and sister were critically injured and were taken to a hospital.
Nearly 5,000 people have been killed since the conflict began nearly a year ago.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.