Ukraine accuses Russia of open aggression
Until last week, Ukraine had appeared close to crushing the four-month rebellion in the east.
KIEV/MOSCOW - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia on Monday of "direct and open aggression" which he said had radically changed the battlefield balance as Kiev's forces suffered a further reverse in the war with pro-Moscow separatists.
Ukraine's military said its troops had been ordered to pull back from a vital airport in the east of the country, near the city of Luhansk, where they had been battling a Russian tank battalion.
Poroshenko said in a speech there would be high-level personnel changes in the Ukrainian armed forces, whose troops fled a new rebel advance in the south which Kiev's Western allies say has been backed up by Russian armoured columns.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who called on Sunday for immediate negotiations on the "statehood" of southern and eastern Ukraine, blamed Kiev's leadership for refusing to enter into direct political talks with the separatists.
Putin also hoped "common sense" would prevail in the West over the possibility of imposing additional economic sanctions, despite Moscow's denials that it is helping the rebels. China weighed in, saying more measures would only complicate the crisis, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that accepting Russia's behaviour was not an option.
Until last week, Ukraine had appeared close to crushing the four-month rebellion in the east, which erupted after a pro-Moscow president was forced out of power by popular protests. But then the rebels opened a new front to the south on the coast of the Sea of Azov, pushing towards the city of Mariupol.
Poroshenko repeated Kiev's belief that Russian forces are helping the rebels to turn the tide of the war.
"Direct and open aggression has been launched against Ukraine from a neighbouring state. This has changed the situation in the zone of conflict in a radical way," he said in his speech at a military academy in Kiev.
Speaking during a visit to Siberia, Putin repeated his call for talks. "The current Kiev leadership does not want to carry out a substantive political dialogue with the east of its country," state news agency Itar-Tass cited him as telling journalists.
Putin also said the separatists were trying to force Ukrainian troops from their current positions where they were firing on civilian targets. "The aim of the militia fighters is to push away these armed forces and their artillery to not give them the possibility to shoot on residential areas," he said.