U.S. government officials said Thursday that Russian troops have been firing artillery at the Ukraine military, a brash new level of cross-border tension that the Pentagon has characterized an uptick in Russian provocation.
Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said the Defense Department sees the abrasive behavior as a dangerous move toward an all-out war.
“This is clearly a military escalation,” he said.
In addition to the artillery attacks, the United States is now tracking a Russian plan to supply its Ukraine-based supporters with stronger, more damaging weapons than they already have on hand, State Department spokesman Marie Harf said.
“We have new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to the separatist forces in Ukraine and have evidence that Russia is firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainan military positions,” she said during an afternoon press briefing.
To date, the pro-Russia separatists have been accused of downing a number of military aircraft and of playing a role in using a radar-guided surface-to-air missile to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people aboard.
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Rep. Michael R. Turner, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee tactical air and land subcommittee, was first to point to the new threat as an opportunity for the Obama administration to arm Ukrainian security forces with equipment to battle back the pro-Russia separatists.
In a letter to the White House on Thursday, the Ohio Republican called on the Obama administration to equip the Ukrainians with the military capabilities necessary “to eliminate all anti-aircraft systems currently being used in the Russian-backed separatist territory in eastern Ukraine.”
Earlier this week, Col. Warren said Russia needed to be held responsible for the actions of its Ukraine-based supporters.
“We know that they’ve sent for example last week a column of over 100 vehicles which included tanks, artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, so there is no question that the Russians are backing these separatists and that they bear responsibility,” he said. “Because of their backing of these separatists … they bear responsibility for what happens in eastern Ukraine.”
News of increased tension near the Ukraine border comes amid intense fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russia separatists in the rebel-held town of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
The army has attempted to encircle Donetsk in order to cut off access to the Russian supply routes to the rebels, who have retreated to the town after they were defeated this month in the city of Slovyansk.
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It also comes just as the country’s government is showing signs of fragmenting.
Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk Thursday resigned, citing “the collapse of the coalition and blocking of government initiatives.” Earlier in the day, the leaders of Ukrainian political parties Svoboda and Ukranian Democratic Alliance for Reform said that they, too, planned to part ways with the governing coalition in Ukraine, according to The New York Times.