DONETSK, Ukraine: As separatists conceded that militants from Russia’s province of Chechnya had joined the rebellion, a Ukrainian government official cautioned Wednesday that its borders had become a “front line” in the crisis.
Chechnya’s Moscow-backed strongman brushed away allegations he had dispatched paramilitary forces under his command to Ukraine, saying he was powerless to stop fellow Chechens from joining the fight.
While there is no immediate indication that the Kremlin is enabling or supporting combatants from Russia crossing into Ukraine, Moscow may have to dispel suspicions it is waging a proxy war if it is to avoid more Western sanctions.
In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., President Barack Obama addressed the crisis in Ukraine by saying, “Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe.”
The Kremlin welcomed the election Sunday of billionaire Petro Poroshenko as the president of Ukraine. An advocate of strong ties with Europe, Poroshenko also favors mending relations with Russia.
He replaced the pro-Moscow leader who was driven from office in February. That ouster led to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine — which triggered the sanctions — and a violent pro-Moscow insurgency in the east.
Reports circulate almost daily of truckloads of gunmen crossing from Russia, and authorities believe they are a vital reinforcement to the armed rebel force that has repeatedly thwarted government security operations. Intense fighting from a government offensive Monday to dislodge rebels from the Donetsk airport appeared to have died down, with only sporadic violence reported Wednesday.
Ukrainian border service head Mykola Lytvyn said he has deployed all reserves to the eastern and southern frontiers.
“Our border, especially in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, has become a front line that various terrorists are trying to break through,” Lytvyn said at a news conference in Kiev. “Daily fighting with terrorists and groups of criminals near the Ukrainian and Russian border have become our routine reality.”
Russians who cross into Ukraine by road must go through passport and customs control on both sides of the border, a procedure that usually takes several hours. But these controls would be virtually nonexistent for those who drive across fields.
The Kiev government condemns the roiling insurgency as the work of “terrorists” bent on destroying the country, while rebels insist they are only protecting the interests of the Russian-speaking population of the east.
Russia denies mass border crossings are taking place, although separatist leaders freely admit their ragtag army has many foreigners.