Ukraine’s defence minister claimed on Wednesday that a military transport plane flying over Ukrainian Black Sea coastal waters was fired upon and hit by a bullet while cruising near an oil rig seized by Russian forces following their internationally unrecognised annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Russia – which initially denied before admitting years later that its “green men” forces seized control over Crimea before an unrecognised referendum was held – denied that its forces on Wednesday shot at the Ukrainian plane.
Wednesday’s incident nonetheless marks an ominous escalation in an intensifying and bloody Russia-Ukraine standoff that could test newly elected US president Donald Trump’s plan to reboot Moscow-Washington ties.
A flare-up in fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists controlling Ukraine’s breakaway east has claimed dozens of combatant and civilian lives over four days, with the most intense battles taking place over the Ukrainian-held frontline town of Avdiyivka, which sits just north of separatist-held stronghold Donetsk. Thousands of the region’s residents have braved freezing temperatures over the past few days as fighting prevented workers from restoring electricity, water and heating knocked out by shelling.
Concerns deepened late Wednesday after Ukraine’s defence minister Stepan Poltorak said that a military transport plane had been fired on by Russian forces over the Black Sea, far from the eastern front-line areas.
In a Facebook posting that included photographs demonstrating a bullet hole in the plane, he wrote:
“While conducting a training flight in exclusive (maritime) economic zone of Ukraine in the region of the Odessa gas field where the Russian Federation previously seized a drilling rig, an An-26 transport plane of the Military-Naval Forces within Ukraine’s Armed Forces was fired upon by gunfire.”
Noting that the plane’s crew were not injured, he added:
“The crew identified and fixed active mode activity of a Russian Federation radar station which is typically used for air defence missile guidance systems.”
This new flashpoint amid continued fighting near Donetsk is likely to deepen international concern about the undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine sparked by the occupation of Crimea — which Ukraine is challenging through litigation — and nearly three years of battles over breakaway regions in the country’s industrial eastern heartland, which have claimed nearly 10,000 lives.
Fighting in Ukraine’s restive east escalated from routine daily gunfire to use of Grad rockets and other heavy weaponry hours after Mr Trump held his first phone call since taking over as US president with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last Saturday. Mr Trump has since remained silent over the bloodshed.
Kiev fears that the leader of the free world is considering rolling back sanctions on Russia and recognising Crimea as Moscow turf in order to gain an ally in its efforts against ISIS — in line with controversial comments Mr Trump made during the US election campaign.
Such a major shift in US policy is feared by Kiev’s pro-western leadership but would be welcomed by the Kremlin.
Commenting on escalation of the Russia-Ukraine crisis on Wednesday, Mr Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said:
“As to the existing escalation … it’s probably just another reason for a swift resumption of a dialogue and cooperation between Russia and the United States.”