U.S. President Donald Trump spoke Saturday with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, seeking to reassure the Ukrainian leader of continued U.S. support, as Kyiv government forces and pro-Russian rebels again battled near the Russian border.
A White House statement described the conversation as “a very good call” that addressed the “long-running conflict.” It also said the two leaders discussed the potential for a face-to-face meeting soon.
Poroshenko’s office said the two leaders agreed on “the urgent necessity of establishing a complete cease-fire.” It further said they voiced “deep concern” about the spike in [military] tension and the deterioration of the humanitarian situation” on the front lines of the conflict.
Poroshenko said he also thanked Trump “for his strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Shelling near border
Hours earlier, monitors near the Russian border reported renewed shelling just north of the rebel stronghold city of Donetsk, at a flashpoint where monitors say artillery and rocket fire has killed at least 33 people and wounded dozens of others in the past week.
Alexander Hug, the chief Ukraine monitor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Friday described the fighting outside Donetsk at Avdiivka as “the worst fighting we’ve seen in Ukraine” in at least two years.
Hug also confirmed that both sides have deployed and used heavy weaponry that both rebels and the Kyiv government had agreed to pull back from front lines under a truce brokered in 2015.
Rebel commander killed
Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department said the fighting, which erupted last Sunday at an industrial park outside Avdiivka, had left 17,000 civilians, including 2,500 children, without water, heat or electricity.
In a separate development Saturday, rebels near the Russian border said one of their top commanders was killed when his vehicle exploded.
The death of People’s Militia commander Oleg Anashchenko in Luhansk followed widespread regional news reports that a top-level deputy rebel commander had been killed January 29, in what reports described as intense fighting in the nearby Donetsk region.
Luhansk and Donetsk are the two key rebel-controlled regions in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine where separatists have been fighting government forces since 2014. A United Nations tally shows nearly 10,000 people, more than half of them civilians, have been killed in the conflict.
Political maneuvering unabated
The uptick in fighting at Avdiivka coincided with a January 28 telephone conversation between the new U.S. president and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Days later, the Russian leader accused the Ukraine government of starting the latest fighting and blaming the rebels, in an effort ultimately aimed at ensuring continued U.S. support for Kyiv. Putin also said the maneuver was aimed at blocking any moves to repair frayed ties between Moscow and Western governments.
Each side blames the other for the new fighting, and each side is seeking the support of Trump to gain a decisive advantage in the drawn-out conflict.
Ukraine’s Poroshenko has framed the new fighting as the principal reason for supporting ongoing Western sanctions against Russia for Moscow’s widely acknowledged support for rebels and its unilateral annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.
For her part, Nikki Haley, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, condemned Russia on Thursday for its “aggressive actions” in eastern Ukraine. She also warned that the economic and trade sanctions imposed on Moscow after its annexation of Crimea would remain in effect until the peninsula was returned to Ukrainian control.
But Haley also acknowledged that the Trump administration wanted, in her words, “to better our relations with Russia.”