NATO chief wants Russia to 'step back'
KIEV — The head of the NATO alliance on Thursday urged Russia to “step back from the brink” by withdrawing its troops massed on the Ukrainian border or face greater isolation and debilitating sanctions.
“Do not use peacekeeping as an excuse for war-making,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, pointedly speaking from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, where he visited to show support.
NATO has warned that Russia could invade Ukraine under the pretext of sending in a peacekeeping mission to stop the war between government troops and pro-Russian separatists. Russia has as many as 20,000 troops at the border. Rasmussen met with Ukrainian officials, offering intensified NATO assistance to the country's military in the form of advisers, training and logistical support.
“I have no doubt the international community would react decisively, with broader, deeper, tougher economic sanctions if Russia intervenes further,” Rasmussen said.
NATO has made clear it does not want to send troops to protect Ukraine, which is not a member country. Rasmussen's remarks came amid new fighting in eastern Ukraine, where government troops mounted an offensive against the rebels.
In Donetsk, mortar shells struck three apartment buildings and the dentistry wing of Vishnevskiy Hospital, where one person died. Many residents of the east say the Ukrainian military is responsible for the shelling. The military insists its artillery is directed only at convoys delivering ordnance to the rebels.
A Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down in the region.
In an odd incident that underscores the hybrid nature of the conflict, Ukraine accused Russia of holding dozens of military officers and border guards. The officers and guards were among hundreds who fled to Russia on Monday to escape heavy bombardment from the rebels, who are supported by Russia.
Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said 18 officers and 28 border guards were not allowed to leave. Five of the officers were arrested and charged with directing artillery attacks into Russian territory, he said, and faced coercive interrogations.
Lysenko also repeated a theory about the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane, first espoused earlier Thursday by Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the head of Ukraine's Security Service. The plane was shot down July 17 over separatist territory by what the United States and Ukraine say was a missile supplied to rebels from Russia.
Nalyvaichenko said his agency had received “information” that rebels had intended to down a Russian airliner flying to Larnaca, causing an uproar that would induce Russia to invade Ukraine.