A pro-Russian rebel walks in a passage at the local market damaged by shelling in Petrovskiy district in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Mstislav Chernov/The Associated Press)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration accused Russia on Wednesday of orchestrating a new military campaign in Ukraine that is helping rebel forces expand their fight in the country's east and sending tanks, rocket launchers and armored vehicles toward communities elsewhere.
"These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway in Donetsk and Luhansk," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, referring to two rebel regions in eastern Ukraine. She also voiced concern about overnight deliveries of materiel in southeast Ukraine, where separatists on Wednesday entered a key town linking Russia to the Crimean Peninsula it recently annexed.
The reports of Russian activity are the latest wrinkle in months of fighting in Ukraine that spiraled out of street protests against the former government, the ouster of a pro-Russian president and then rebellion in the most pro-Russian parts of the country. Ukraine and Western governments say Moscow has played a direct role in escalating the conflict, though Moscow denies directly supporting separatists.
Psaki said Russia was being dishonest about its actions, even to its own people.
Russian forces, she said, are being sent 30 miles inside Ukraine, without them or their families knowing where they are going. She cited reports of burials in Russia for those who've died in Ukraine and wounded Russian soldiers being treated in a St. Petersburg hospital. She said such actions show Russia isn't acting transparently.
Despite the critical rhetoric, Psaki didn't outline any immediate response.
She said the U.S. had options at its disposal, including giving more nonlethal assistance to Ukraine's military and possible coordinated sanctions with European allies. President Obama and European allies will discuss Ukraine at next week's NATO summit, she said, but didn't outline any imminent steps Washington was considering.
The mayor of Novoazovsk, a port in southeastern Ukraine, said rebel forces entered his town Wednesday after three days of heavy shelling, capturing territory far from most battles with government troops. It wasn't clear if the rebels reached the area via Russia.
The new southeastern front raises fears the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea. Novoazovsk lies on the Azov Sea on the road between the territories. If Russia or its proxies seize southeastern Ukraine, it would give them control over the entire Azov Sea and any oil or mineral riches it contains.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, met in the Belarusian capital of Minsk for their first ever one-on-one meeting, lasting more than two hours. There was no indication of a swift resolution to the fighting.