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Ukraine, Russia lurch towards outright state of war

Smoke billows over a damaged building after shelling on the outskirts of the small southern Ukrainian city of Novoazovsk, Donetsk regionALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY/ AFP--Getty Images

Russia and Ukraine have moved closer to a state of outright war, as rebels overrun large parts of the country’s south-eastern coastline and push government forces back from other towns they had taken in recent fighting, with increasing evidence of direct support from Russia’s own army.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko called an emergency meeting of the country’s National Security and Defense Council after Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said “Russia has significantly increased its military presence in Ukrainian territory.”

His words came after an armored column with artillery support took the coastal town of Novoazovsk, well inside Ukraine on the road to the major port city of Mariupol. State department spokeswoman Jen Psaki agreed that “these incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway in Donetsk and Luhansk.”

Reuters Thursday cited a NATO official as saying that there were over 1,000 Russian troops in Ukraine, including some with heavy equipment.

Yatsenyuk called on Ukraine’s western partners to freeze all Russian international financial assets and summon an extraordinary meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

“The sanctions imposed so far have not brought results,” he said.

Psaki gave no indication of what response the U.S. was planning. However, NATO is holding a summit in Cardiff, Wales next week and is likely to discuss little else. Ukraine, which has requested NATO’s help, will be the only non-member attending.

The Kyiv government is itself under increasing domestic political pressure. There were mass protests outside the Defense Ministry Thursday demanding the relief of volunteer militia who have been encircled by pro-Russian forces this week.

French President Francois Hollande said proof of a Russian incursion would be “intolerable and unacceptable” and said “Europe will maintain (sanctions) and even increase them if the escalation increases.”

Europe had appeared to lose appetite for any further action against Russia after Moscow retaliated to E.U. and U.S. sanctions by banning imports of western food.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has publicly pressured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to seek a mutually-agreed peace settlement in recent days, called Russian President Vladimir Putin to demand an explanation for the reported incursion, her spokesman said.

Other European politicians, however, were already accepting that the two countries were effectively at war.

“We are now evidently seeing fighting between regular Russian and regular Ukrainian forces in Eastern Ukraine,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter. “There is a word for this.”

Ukraine has paraded captured Russian soldiers, together with identification, on national television. Representatives of Russian soldiers’ mothers estimate that around 15,000 have already been sent to Ukraine at some stage in recent months, the TV station Dozhd reported Thursday. They estimate 400 have already been killed or wounded. Russian media report secret burials of the dead in Pskov, near St. Petersburg.

Moscow continues to deny its military is engaged in eastern Ukraine, but the official line has become increasingly erratic, with Putin saying that the captured soldiers had accidentally gotten lost during a routine march, while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the footage part of a disinformation campaign.

The conflict continues to have a ruinous effect on the Ukrainian currency, which hit a new all-time low against the dollar Thursday. In Moscow, the benchmark stock index fell 2% while the ruble fell to its lowest against the dollar since the currency reform that followed Russia’s economic and financial crash in 1998.

(Note: This story has been updated to include comment from a NATO official.)