Russian President Vladimir Putin has sharply raised the stakes in the Ukraine conflict by calling for the first time for statehood to be considered for the restive east of the former Soviet state.
Putin’s defiant remarks came on Sunday just hours after the European Union gave Moscow — which the bloc accuses of direct involvement in the insurgency — a week to change course or face new sanctions.
“We need to immediately begin substantive talks … on questions of the political organisation of society and statehood in south-eastern Ukraine,” the Russian leader was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.
Moscow has previously only called for greater rights under a decentralised federal system to be accorded to the eastern regions of Ukraine, where predominantly Russian-speakers live.
But Putin has this week sparked renewed speculation that he may be seeking to create a statelet in southeast Ukraine, after he employed a loaded Tsarist-era name “Novorossiya” to refer to the region.
Putin’s tough talk also comes as rebels turned the tide on advancing Ukrainian troops, by snatching a series of towns and trapping the army in some.
Kiev has warned that it was on the brink of “full-scale war” with Moscow that Europe fears would put all of the continent at risk of conflict.
The European Union agreed to take “further significant steps” if Moscow did not rein in its support for the rebels, with new sanctions to be drawn up within a week.
Kiev said the invigorated rebel push of the past days has included substantial numbers of Russian regular army contingents who are now concentrating forces in big towns across the region.
“Terrorists and Russian soldiers continue to concentrate personnel and equipment in regional centres,” said security spokesman Andriy Lysenko.
A ragtag mix of volunteer battalions and local residents were meanwhile bracing for a desperate defence of Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Azov Sea coast.
“We can hold them off, but for how long? We don’t have the strength to beat them,” said Panther, a tattooed fighter with the Azov battalion, said to be one of the most radical nationalist groups fighting in the area.