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VICE News

Russia Flexes its Military Muscle As Ukrainian Troops Flee Across Border

Russia said it will hold military drills near the border, as concerns mount that the Kremlin is preparing to send troops into Ukraine.

by Harriet Salem
Aug 4 2014, 10:55pm

Photo by AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Russia announced on Monday that it would hold military drills in central and western regions of the country this week, with more than 100 fighter jets and helicopters set to be used. The exercises, expected to continue until Friday, should be considered "routine" and will include shooting at mid-air and ground targets in the area near Ukraine’s southeast border, according to a statement by Russian Air Force Commander Igor Klimov.

This latest flex of military muscle comes amid mounting concern that the Kremlin is preparing to send troops across the border to support the pro-Russian rebels battling Ukrainian forces. According to NATO military commander General Philip Breedlove, at least 12,000 Russian troops are now massed near Ukraine’s eastern border.

Despite increasing evidence to the contrary, Russia has repeatedly denied that it has been covertly aiding the separatist movement in Ukraine's east by supplying weapons and men to the rebels. Among the reams of proof are NATO satellite images, as well as social network posts by Russian soldiers bragging about shelling Ukraine and operating high-tech military equipment including a Buk antiaircraft missile inside its borders.

The other side of the same coin: meet Moscow's parachute politicians in Eastern Ukraine. Read more here.

The military exercises and build-up of soldiers and weapons in the area follow several weeks of mutual finger pointing over cross-border actions. Ukraine has repeatedly claimed that its border posts are being shelled from inside Russia, while Moscow has accused Ukrainian forces of firing into its territory and killing one person in the Rostov region.

Ukrainian forces have made substantial advances in the country’s east over the last two weeks. Both of the rebels’ strongholds, Luhansk and Donetsk, are now encircled. Yasynovataya, Krasnogorovka, Staromykhailovka, and Avdeyevka, all towns and villages around Donetsk, have all reportedly been retaken in the last six days as the Kiev-backed anti-terror operation (ATO) has tightened its net around the city with pre-war population of one million.

As evening fell there were more reports of fierce fights in Mariinka a suburb to the west of the city that has been turned into a ghost town following heavy shelling in recent weeks.

OSCE officials reach MH17 crash site as Ukraine narrowly avoids default. Read more here.

On Friday, Igor Girkin, the Defense minister of the rebel-republic officially declared a state of “siege” and the introduction of “martial law” in Donetsk. A ban was placed on the movement of non-authorized vehicles between 11PM and 5AM and it was announced that all “troublemakers” would be sent directly to court-martial immediately.

Yet, despite the gains made, Ukrainian forces appear to be heavily stretched in their effort to separate the two rebel ‘People’s Republics’ and secure the country’s porous eastern border; a strategic move that would help sever the supply lines between the rebel fighter groups and stymie the flow of weapons and men coming in from Russia.

Today in a sight of further troubles for Ukrainian forces, at least 300 Ukrainian soldiers fled into Russia for what Andrey Lysenko, spokesperson for Ukraine's National Defense and Security Council, called “objective reasons.”

"The authorities are doing everything they can to bring our troops home," he added.

According Oleksiy Dmitrashkovsky, a spokesperson for the Kiev-backed anti-terror operation working in the country's east, the troops from the army's 72nd brigade were forced to flee across the border after being penned into their position by rebel forces firing a sustained barrage of rockets, Grad, mortars, and other artillery.

Civilians flee eastern Ukraine as casualties mount and both sides claim control of MH17 crash site. Read more here.

In contrast Vassily Malayev, the spokesman for the Rostov region department of the border service claimed that the servicemen were seeking asylum. "They were tired of war and didn't want to fight any more," he told pro-Kremlin media outlet ITAR-TASS.

Fighting flared again on Monday around the crash site of MH17, 25 miles from the Russian border. International forensic experts from Australia and the Netherlands had finally managed to reach the site over the weekend after multiple aborted attempts in the last week, but this afternoon the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe tweeted that the experts and monitors were now "remaining stationary pending further security assessments." The remains of up to 80 of the 298 passengers killed in the crash are still believed to be at the site.

Speaking by phone from Shakhtersk, a place of fierce fighting nearby the crash site, local resident Katerina told VICE News, “everybody is in their basement, dead or gone, many people have gone. There is a lot of destruction.

Civilian casualties in the war where both sides have used heavy artillery indiscriminately are mounting rapidly as fighting pushes further into populated areas. Large parts of Luhansk, a city with a pre-war population of 450,000, have now been with out water, electricity, and gas for more than two weeks. The self-styled prime minister of the rebel-run 'Luhansk People's Republic' Marat Bashirov, has warned that the city is facing a “humanitarian crisis” and that supplies of drinking water will soon run out.

On Monday, Ukraine's National Security and Defense council announced that they were opening a humanitarian corridor out of Luhansk, Donetsk and Gorlovka to allow civilians to flee. Those seeking to use the exit routes are asked to carry a “white ribbon for a single person and a white flag for a group.”

At least 1,129 civilians have been killed since fighting began in east Ukraine in mid-April, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who called the estimate “conservative.”

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem