KAMENSK-SHAKHTINSKY, Russia – NATO on Friday said a Russian military column ventured overnight into Ukraine, and the Ukrainian president said his forces destroyed most of it. Russia denied all of this, but the reports spooked global markets and overshadowed optimism driven by agreement over a Russian aid convoy bound for eastern Ukraine.
The White House said it was looking into what it called unconfirmed reports that Ukraine’s security forces disabled vehicles in a Russian military convoy inside Ukraine.
The Russian aid convoy of more than 250 trucks has been a source of tensions since it set off Tuesday from Moscow. Kiev and the West were suspicious that the mission could be a pretext for a Russian military incursion into eastern Ukraine, where government forces are battling pro-Russia separatists and clawing back rebel-held territory.
Throughout the eastern crisis that erupted in April, there have been consistent allegations that Russia is fomenting or directing the rebellion. Moscow rejects the allegations and the high-profile aid convoy could be aimed, in part, at portraying Russia as interested in cooling the conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to cultivate that perception in a Thursday speech in which he said Russia hopes for peace in Ukraine.
It was not clear what Russia could hope to gain by sending in a military column while world attention was trained on its efforts to get the aid convoy into eastern Ukraine.
But some foreign journalists reported that Russian armored personnel carriers were seen crossing into Ukraine on Thursday night. Friday, a statement on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s website said “the given information was trustworthy and confirmed because the majority of the vehicles were destroyed by Ukrainian artillery at night.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also confirmed that Russian military vehicles had entered Ukraine, but he gave no specifics.
In Moscow, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry insisted that no Russian military vehicles were destroyed because none had crossed into Ukraine. Yet Britain said it summoned Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko in to clarify reports of the Russian incursion.
In Washington, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the U.S. government is working to gather more information about the reports. She said the U.S. remains concerned about repeated Russian and Russian-supported incursions into Ukraine.
Markets sold off heavily Friday, spooked by the thought of Ukrainian troops engaging with Russia forces inside Ukraine. Germany’s DAX, which had been trading more than 1 percent higher, ended the day 1.4 percent lower.
The crossing reportedly took place near the southern Russian town where the aid trucks have been parked, awaiting permission to go into Ukraine.
In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu “guaranteed” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday that no Russian troops are involved in the transport of humanitarian relief supplies to eastern Ukraine.