KIEV, Ukraine — Moscow and Kiev have spent the past two days trading accusations of letting armored vehicles encroach on each other's territory.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his foreign ministry to formally complain to its Ukrainian counterparts after two Ukrainian armored personnel carriers strayed into Russian territory overnight, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax news agency. Russia's border guards said, however, that only one APC had crossed over to the town of Millerovo for "technical reasons," the Federal Security Service (FSB) said in a statement. The APC attempted to return, but was "stopped" by the border guards, the FSB added.
Putin's accusations follow multiple Ukrainian claims over the past several days that Russia is sending troops and heavy equipment through the country's porous border to supply a separatist uprising against the pro-Europe government that took power in February. Kiev says Russia is financing and directing the uprising, which Moscow denies.
On Thursday, Ukraine accused Russia of allowing antigovernment separatist militia to drive three tanks over the border, though it was not clear by whom the tanks were made or where they had come from. Initially, Ukraine's interior ministry said the tanks were Russian-made T-72, though rebels told Reuters reporters they had got them from a storage facility in Lugansk, one of the two provinces gripped by the two-month conflict.
The tanks were spotted in the town of Snezhnoe in Ukraine's Donetsk province on Thursday, where Ukraine's foreign ministry says rebels kidnapped 25 orphans and drove them on a bus to Rostov-on-Don in Russia.
They were then said to have driven through the Ukrainian town of Makeyevka before entering the provincial capital, Donetsk.
The subsequent fate of the tanks is unclear. Pro-Kiev military analyst Dmitry Tymchuk, whose murkily sourced reports are frequently cited in Ukrainian media, claimed that two of the tanks were destroyed alongside several other armored vehicles after Ukrainian forces engaged the rebels. Ukraine's interior ministry, however, said that three tanks broke down outside the town of Artyomovsk, near Donetsk, because the rebels did not know how to operate them properly. Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, denied the claims and told Russian state television that the tanks were still under rebel control in Donetsk.
It was not immediately possible to verify the claims. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the presence of tanks "would mark a serious escalation of the crisis in eastern Ukraine."
Elsewhere, Ukrainian officials claimed a major victory after retaking the industrial port city of Mariupol from rebels on Friday morning. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that three rebels were killed, 17 injured, and 41 arrested during the fighting, which ended when Ukrainian forces raised the country's flag over the town hall that had served as rebel headquarters. Rebels said five of their men died in the fighting.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, eager to claim a public relations victory after his inauguration on Saturday, ordered Donetsk's provincial officials to relocate to Mariupol. The city had descended into a state of generalized lawlessness over the past month despite a bloody battle on May 9 in which between seven and 21 died, and subsequent attempts by Ukraine's oligarch kingpin, Rinat Akhmetov, to stabilize it.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.