KIEV, Ukraine – Russian soldiers, tanks and heavy artillery began rolling into southeastern Ukraine in earnest Thursday, the Ukrainian government said, as well-armed detachments captured key towns, burned buildings and sent the under-equipped Ukrainian forces into full retreat – a show of military force that the United States now considers an invasion in all but name.
U.S. officials began saying privately for the first time Thursday that they consider the escalation of recent days tantamount to a Russian invasion, but President Barack Obama stopped short of using the term at a news conference late in the afternoon. He said the United States would continue to rely on sanctions in an effort to deter Russia.
Russia is responsible for the violence in eastern Ukraine, he said. Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
But he said the problem will not be solved with U.S. or outside military action. A military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming, he said.
Buttressing the Ukrainian accounts, NATO released satellite images Thursday of what it said were Russian artillery, vehicles and troops in and around eastern Ukraine.
One image showed what NATO officials said was a convoy with self-propelled artillery in the area of Krasnodon, inside territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists, on Aug. 21.
There is no doubt that this is not a homegrown, indigenous uprising in eastern Ukraine. The separatists are backed, trained, armed, financed by Russia, Obama said.
Russian actions will be a main topic for the summit of NATO leaders next week in Wales, Obama said.
The Russian defense ministry reiterated its position again Thursday, saying no Russian military units had taken part in action in Ukraine, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that lists of Russian military units circulating on the Internet are fake.
Russian and American diplomats clashed Thursday during an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, with Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, saying that Russia has outright lied about its involvement in the conflict.
She said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had spoken of the need to end the bloodshed as soon as possible in a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko just Tuesday. At the same time, she noted – citing the NATO satellite imagery - Russian combat units were rolling into the Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin countered that Washington should stop interfering and called the Russian soldiers in Ukraine volunteers.
There are Russian volunteers in eastern parts of Ukraine. No one is hiding that, he said. He suggested Ukraine was supported by Western advisers and funding.