The Russian military fired artillery rounds into eastern Ukraine on Thursday, according to a U.S. Defense Department official.
USA Today reports that Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, called the development “a clear escalation” of the conflict in Ukraine. He also said that the shelling campaign had begun earlier in the week.
On Wednesday, Warren told reporters that the Russian military had been continuing to arm the rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“We know that they sent, for example, last week a column of over 100 vehicles which included tanks, artillery, multiple launch rocket systems,” he said, adding that “there is no question that the Russians are backing these separatists and they bear responsibility.”
There are about 12,000 Russian troops currently at the country’s border with Ukraine. The rebels in eastern Ukraine want greater autonomy from Kiev, if not outright separation. Moscow has been accused of supporting them while denying any direct involvement.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf backed up the Pentagon’s claim, pointing to “new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful, multiple rocket launchers to the separatist forces in Ukraine, and have evidence that Russia is firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainian military positions.”
Also on Thursday, Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned, saying that “history will not forgive us” for failing to respond to the pressing economic problems facing the country.
Yatsenyuk took office earlier this year following the collapse of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government. Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman was appointed as acting replacement Thursday night, according to Bloomberg. Hroisman is allied with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
But as political turmoil returned to Kiev, the government also faced the prospect of deeper conflict with Russia. The defense ministry on Thursday echoed the U.S. statements on the artillery strikes, saying that”infrastructure and equipment on the international border point have been rendered inoperable.”
“Yesterday at 6 pm and 11 pm, Ukraine’s border checkpoint at Marynivka in the Donetsk region was attacked from Russian territory by mortars, Grad missile systems and artillery,” spokesman Andriy Lysenko said, according to Bloomberg.
Last week, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove tweeted a video of what he said appeared to be a Russian military strike on Ukraine.
I am deeply concerned by this latest video that appears to show Russia engaging in military action against Ukraine http://t.co/wqxtvzswZT
— Phil Breedlove (@PMBreedlove) July 17, 2014
As we reported on Wednesday, two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down over the Donetsk region, with the Russian military being blamed at least indirectly.