Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has warned of the escalation of conflict in the country’s east which could jeopardise the Kiev government’s ceasefire with pro-Russian separatist rebels.
Speaking at a security and defence council meeting in Kiev on Wednesday, President Poroshenko said the threat of a “large-scale” military offensive from the separatists is “growing,” after it was confirmed that five Ukrainian servicemen had been killed in clashes within 24 hours of his speech.
Four of the dead soldiers were killed by a landmine and the fifth was killed after falling victim to an ambush by rebel forces, army spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.
According to a separate statement posted on his website later in the day, Poroshenko also warned that 40,000 separatist rebels were mobilising in the east, while a further 50,000 Russian troops were on standby on the Russian side of the border.
Another online statement by the security council said plans to "accelerate the construction of fortified lines and borders" had been approved during the meeting.
Russia and Ukraine have been at loggerheads ever since months of pro-EU demonstrations in Kiev forced former pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country in February 2014.
The political crisis led the autonomous government in Crimea, which is dominated by ethnic Russians, to declare independence from Ukraine and eventually be annexed by Russia following a referendum a month later.
Over 6,000 people have died in the fighting between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian government since the rebels began their insurgency last year.
The Minsk 2 agreement, which was signed between the Ukrainian government and rebel leaders in the Belarusian capital on Feb. 15, secured a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine in order to allow vital humanitarian aid to reach thousands of civilians who have been cut off from social subsidies due to the conflict.
Ceasefire under threat
A pro-Russian rebel leader fighting for an independent state in eastern Ukraine previously warned the Minsk peace deal for a ceasefire in the region between troops and separatists will fail unless Kiev recognises the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Speaking to the BBC in April, rebel leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko said, "Ukraine has stopped paying welfare, pensions and other payments that are obligatory for a state to pay its citizens...They don't do it, so they've de facto recognised us."
Although the Minsk 2 deal states the rebel-held areas are to remain part of Ukraine, Zakharchenko claims Ukraine has a responsibility to recognise the region’s independence, and accuses Kiev of not sticking to agreements.
"Ukraine doesn't want to resolve all the issues...If you agree to resolve something, then you need to act and move forward, and resolve everything that's included,” Zakharchenko said.
"If that doesn't happen, then the Minsk Agreement is unfulfilled, and it renders all the meetings in Minsk pointless.”
According to a report released by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) on April 16 three ceasefires organised by the Joint Centre for Control & Coordination (JCCC) between rebels and troops were broken within minutes by an “unidentified third party.”
The OSCE also reported heavy shelling in the village of Shirokane, near Mariupol, on April 26, with one shell forcing the observers to relocate away from the conflict area.
The observers noted a drone had spotted the movement of 11 tanks and four infantry-mounted armoured personnel carriers moving through rebel held territories 15 kilometres north of the village, but this sighting was not verified.
Under the Minsk 2 agreement, rebels are required to withdraw all heavy weapons from the battlefront.