Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Saturday accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of wanting to conquer Ukraine and "restore the Soviet Union." The comments came as Ukraine’s military announced it had successfully repelled an overnight attack by pro-Russian separatists on a government-held airport in Donetsk — despite an eight-day-old cease-fire.
Speaking at a conference with politicians and business leaders in Kiev, Yatsenyuk charged that Putin's "goal is to take the entire Ukraine."
"He cannot cope with the idea that Ukraine would be a part of a big EU family. He wants to restore the Soviet Union," Yatsenyuk said, adding that only membership in NATO could help Ukraine defend itself from Russian aggression.
“We are still in a stage of war and the key aggressor is the Russian Federation...Putin wants another frozen conflict [in eastern Ukraine],” said Yatsenyuk.
The prime minister insisted Putin would not be content only with Crimea – annexed by Moscow in March – and with Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking eastern region.
“His goal is to take all of Ukraine...Russia is a threat to the global order and to the security of the whole of Europe,” he said.
Though Yatsenyuk wants NATO to accept his country as a member state, there is no prospect of the Atlantic alliance admitting Ukraine — a sprawling country of 45 million people between central Europe and Russia. However, Kiev has stepped up cooperation with NATO in a range of areas and has pressed member states to sell it weapons to help quell separatists.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Ukraine's military operation in the east said it had successfully repelled a rebel attack on an airport in Donetsk. The facility came under fire from rebel positions late on Friday, officials said.
A statement posted on Donetsk’s city council website said that shells hit residential buildings near the airport, although no casualties were reported. A column of three GRAD rocket launchers – all their rockets still in place – was seen moving freely through the rebel-held city on Saturday morning.
Kiev and its Western backers accuse Moscow of sending troops and tanks into eastern Ukraine in support of pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian forces in a conflict that has killed more than 3,000 people. Russia denies the accusations.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a daily briefing on Saturday that one soldier and 12 rebels had been killed in the past 24 hours, without specifying where they had died. That would bring the death toll among Ukrainian forces since Sept. 5, when the cease-fire between Kiev and rebels went into effect, to six.
The rebels have not said how many of their men have died in the same period, though Ukrainian authorities also admitted for the first time since the cease-fire started that they had inflicted casualties on the rebel side.
On Saturday, about 100 Russian lorries arrived in the war-ravaged eastern city of Luhansk, part of a convoy sent to deliver 1,800 tons of humanitarian aid to residents. It is the second such Russian aid convoy and it passed the border without any major difficulty.
The first convoy in August was denounced by Ukraine and its Western allies for crossing the border without Kiev's permission.
The Ukraine conflict has triggered several waves of Western sanctions against Russia, most recently on Friday. The new measures target banks and oil companies. Russia, which has already introduced bans on a range of U.S. and European food imports, signaled it would respond with further sanctions of its own against Western interests.
But the conflict is taking a heavy toll on Ukraine's already battered economy, which is now being supported by a $17 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Ukraine’s economy could shrink by as much as 10 percent this year, the head of its central bank, Valeria Hontareva, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying on Saturday, much more than the 6.5 percent decrease previously forecast by the IMF.