Pro-Russian troops prepare to travel in a tank Friday in eastern Ukraine. (Dmitry Lovetsky/The Associated Press)
Russian tanks are on the move even as Ukraine’s president on Friday announced a week-long unilateral ceasefire in fighting with pro-Russian militants.
The tanks have left a deployment site in southwest Russia within the past 24 hours, but it is unclear where they are headed, a senior U.S. State Department official said Friday. Ukrainian media outlets have been reporting that new shipments of tanks and heavy artillery crossed into eastern Ukraine, specifically into Donetsk and Luhansk, but officials could only confirm movement within Russian territory.
“We have information that Russia has redeployed significant military forces to its border with Ukraine,” the official said. “Some of these forces are within a handful of kilometers of Ukrainian territory.”
The official, speaking on background, said she expects additional Russian forces to arrive on the border with Ukraine in the next few weeks. Russia has continued to supply and support the separatists in Ukraine amid warnings from the U.S. and European Union.
“We are confident that Russia last week sent tanks and rocket launchers from a deployment site in southwest Russia to eastern Ukraine,” the official said. “We have information that additional tanks have been prepared for departure from the same deployment site.”
Russia has also massed artillery pieces at the deployment site, including a type of artillery utilized by Ukrainian forces but no longer in Russia’s active forces. The weapons are believed to be in the hands of separatists.
“Much of this is equipment that Ukrainians have [in] active service but that Russia no longer uses, leaving the impression that the desire here is to ... allow the separatists to assert inaccurately that this is material that they have captured on the battlefield from the Ukrainians,” the official said.
Ground photographs from a destroyed BM-21 multiple rocket launcher that caught fire in Luhansk last week also indicate that the launcher belonged to the Russian 18th motorized rifle brigade based in Chechnya, the official said.
The U.S. Treasury Department also announced Friday that it will implement new sanctions on seven Ukrainian separatist leaders who have been active in the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.
“These individuals have all contributed to attempts to illegally undermine the legitimate government in Kyiv, notably by falsely proclaiming leadership positions and fomenting violent unrest,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen in a statement. “The United States will continue to take action to hold accountable those persons engaged in efforts to destabilize Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”
Newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko nonetheless intends to carry out his 14-step peace plan in the coming days — there have been eight rounds of negotiations among Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe working on the plan since his June 7 inauguration, including an amnesty for separatist fighters who lay down arms and tighter controls along Ukraine’s border with Russia.
But the Russians have not, according to reports coming from Ukraine, publicly endorsed the peace plan.
“Russia has a choice to make again,” the State Department official said. “We have long ago stopped trying to speak for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s intentions — our goal here is to conduct a two-track approach: first, to give Putin, to give Russia, a chance to de-escalate, to try to work with the Ukrainians to meet legitimate needs of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine.”
The second approach would be to isolate Russia via more sanctions if Russia does not oblige, the official said.