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Kremlin says Ukraine cuts off rebel east with its own hands

Updated at: 03/17/2017 10:34 AM
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Petro Poroshenko
Petro Poroshenko
Photo: AP

(AP) MOSCOW - MOSCOW (AP) — Ukraine is ruining its own territorial integrity with a blockade of rebel regions in the east, Russia warned Friday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow is watching with concern Ukraine "resolutely and consistently repudiating its own regions, condemning millions to living without social security, banking, medical and legal services."

He wouldn't say if Moscow could consider incorporating the regions into Russia, like it did with Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.

Fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the east erupted weeks after Crimea's annexation and has killed more than 9,800 people since April 2014.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared the transport blockade of rebel-held areas Wednesday, saying it will be in place until the separatists return the region's industrial assets to Ukrainian jurisdiction.

The move represented a U-turn by Poroshenko, who had previously tried to end a blockade on the rebel east imposed by nationalist groups, arguing that it hurts ordinary Ukrainians and drives residents of the east to join the rebel ranks. The sharp change in attitude reflected the growing influence of radical nationalists, who have increasingly shaped the country's political agenda.

Rebel leaders said earlier this month that they had taken over the management of 40 factories and coal mines in retaliation for the blockade.

Igor Plotnitsky, the rebel leader in Luhansk, voiced confidence that the region will eventually have a vote to join Russia.

"We are sure that such referendum will be held," he told the Russian state RIA Novosti news agency. "Of course, we will initiate it in due time."

Asked if the Kremlin was mulling over the prospect of incorporating the eastern regions sometime in the future, Peskov responded by saying that "there are no written scenarios." He also pointed to past statements by rebels eager to join Russia, adding that "public discussion has been going on," but refused to speculate on the possibility of the merger.

Peskov said that Putin discussed the situation in Ukraine with members of his Security Council. "It's unprecedented that a country is consciously undermining its own territorial integrity," Peskov said of Ukraine, adding that Russia would offer humanitarian assistance to residents of the east.

"Russia is strongly worried, because it doesn't help to create a favorable atmosphere for implementing the Minsk agreements," he said.

A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany in Minsk, Belarus, has helped reduce the scale of fighting in the east, but violence has continued and attempts at a political settlement have failed.

Ukraine on Thursday also imposed sanctions on Russian-owned banks in Kiev following a series of pickets by radical nationalists who vandalized branches of Russian banks in the Ukrainian capital. Peskov said the Kremlin Security Council expressed concern about the situation, but wouldn't say how Moscow could respond.

(Copyright 2017 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)