Ukrainian troops began a new offensive and their main eastern headquarters suffered a rocket attack before European diplomats gathered in Belarus for a peace summit to stem 10 months of bloodshed.
Government forces broke through rebel positions near the eastern port city of Mariupol, with Ukraine blaming the militants for shelling its command post and killing seven people. The new fighting erupted after President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Russian aggression is boosting the resolve of the U.S. and the European Union to make President Vladimir Putin pay for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty.
While the U.S. is analyzing the possible supply of defensive weapons to Ukraine, Merkel opposes arming government forces as she prepares for talks with the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and France in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday. Putin accuses his adversaries of trying to encircle Russia and back it into a corner, warning against weapons supplies to its western neighbor. The EU responded with signals of more sanctions if peace talks fail.
“There are risks, and if the latest diplomatic initiative fails because of the Russian position, new sanctions on Russia will follow already the day after tomorrow,” German Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler said in Belgrade, Serbia, on Tuesday. “Moscow will be tempted to jeopardize European unity and that does not only refer to EU member states but also to EU candidates.”
The National Guard, Interior Ministry special forces and the volunteer battalion Azov gained control over several villages near Mariupol in an effort to push the militants beyond shelling range of the city, according to military spokesman Dmytro Chalyi.
“Now, they’re digging in,” Chalyi said by phone.
Rockets fired by insurgents hit a military headquarter and a nearby residential area in the city of Kramatorsk, killing seven civilians and wounding 16, the office of Donetsk governor said. The rebels denied responsibility for the attack.
The conflict has killed at least 5,486 people and left 12,972 wounded, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report late on Monday.
Obama said Monday he hasn’t made a decision on providing lethal supplies to Ukraine, stressing that sanctions hurting Russia’s economy can be ratcheted up.
“Both Angela and I have emphasized the prospect for a military solution to this problem has always been low,” Obama said at a White House news conference after meeting Merkel.
EU foreign ministers agreed Monday to delay an expansion of sanctions against Russia to give the new round of truce talks a better chance of success. A meeting among officials from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France in Berlin produced “some tangible results” for the Minsk meeting, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk, said on twitter .
Government officials will continue preparatory talks in Minsk on Tuesday, German Foreign Ministry said in an e-mail. Kremlin foreign-policy aide Yuri Ushakov will attend talks in Minsk on Tuesday, the Interfax news service reported.
The U.S. president thus far has resisted pressure from some lawmakers in Washington as well as some of his own advisers to supply lethal military equipment to Ukraine.
“If, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options -- what other means can we put in place to change Mr. Putin’s calculus -- and the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options,” Obama said.
Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the EU, compounded by the slumping price of oil, are pushing Russia into a recession. The Russian central bank said the economy may shrink 3.2 percent from a year earlier in the first half of 2015, and the ruble has suffered the largest losses in emerging markets in the past 12 months, slumping 48 percent versus the dollar. The Russian currency weakened 0.3 percent to 66.062 against the dollar as of 5:39 p.m. in Moscow.
Ukraine’s economy also has suffered, falling into its deepest recession since 2009. The central bank estimates it shrank 6.7 percent in 2014 and the government sees another 4.3 percent contraction this year.
Putin has confounded European and U.S. officials by turning Russian economic hardship into domestic political strength by evoking his country’s stand against the Nazis during World War II as an example to follow. Officials in Moscow have repeatedly warned against U.S. arming Ukraine.
“If the U.S. starts supplying weapons to Ukraine, then the conflict will only escalate further,” said Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, according to a website statement on Tuesday.
Russia has taken advantage of Germany’s position to rule out a military solution to the conflict, according to Andrew Wilson, a senior policy expert at the European Council of Foreign Relations in Brussels.
“What America has done recently is useful, whether it supplies weapons or not,” Wilson said by phone. “The uncertainty that has created is helping Russia to the negotiating table.”