U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Russia of lying about its involvement in the Ukraine conflict, amid reports of continued violations of a cease-fire agreement by Russian-backed separatists.
Kerry was asked on February 24 by U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) whether he agreed that Russia was "lying" when it says there are no Russian troops and weapons in Ukraine. He responded "Yes."
Kerry, speaking at a Senate appropriations subcommittee meeting in Washington, added that the Russians "have been persisting in their misrepresentations, lies, whatever you want to call them, about their activities there [in Ukraine] to my face, to the faces of others, on many different occasions."
Kerry is also expected to meet Russia's foreign minister at the weekend.
Moscow has denied backing separatists in eastern Ukraine in the conflict, which has killed at least 5,700 people.
Kerry said on February 21 that the United States and the EU were considering adding more sanctions against Russia.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany called for Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to adhere to the cease-fire agreement reached in Minsk earlier this month.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, reading from a joint statement after the ministers held talks in Paris on February 24, urged the fighting sides to "start with a total cease-fire and [then] complete a withdrawal of heavy weapons."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the Paris talks as "useful" and left early for Moscow.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the talks had been "difficult."
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said the four had agreed on some "technical aspects" and support for an extension of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitoring mission in Ukraine.
The Paris meeting came as Ukrainian military official said February 24 that pro-Russian rebels have continued attacking government positions in violation of the cease-fire deal.
In televised comments on February 24, military spokesman Anatoly Stelmakh said separatist forces targeted villages near the strategic town of Debaltseve seven times late on February 23.
Stelmakh said separatists also fired artillery and mortar rounds in three areas near the rebel-held provincial capital of Donetsk and fought government forces for 30 minutes early on February 24 near the Azov Sea coastal city of Mariupol.
A February 12 deal brokered by the leaders of France and Germany required both sides to cease fire and pull heavy weapons back from a separation line, but Ukraine said on February 23 that it could not begin the pullback because rebels were still launching attacks.
Stelmakh repeated that on February 24, saying government forces would begin withdrawing weapons once there is "a complete cease-fire for at least 24 hours."
A rebel military spokesman, Eduard Basurin, denied the separatists had launched attacks, saying there had been "provocations" from the government side but no serious clashes.
Basurin said the separatists had begun their pullback last week and began withdrawing heavy weapons from four stretches of the separation line -- including the section near Debaltseve -- at 0900 local time (0800 Prague time) on February 24.
But the Ukrainian military said rebel assertions they were pulling back guns were "mere empty words."
"On the contrary, the terrorist groups, making use of the cease-fire period, are reinforcing their units and building up ammunition," the military said in a statement.
It said one government soldier had been killed and seven wounded in the past 24 hours.
British Prime Minister David Cameron on February 24 pledged to send military personnel to Ukraine to train government forces battling pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.
Cameron told lawmakers, “Over the course of the next month we are going to be deploying British service personnel to provide advice and a range of training -- from tactical intelligence, to logistics, to medical care, which is something else that they have asked for."
Cameron said the assistance would involve non-lethal support but left open the possibility of providing arms to Ukraine in the future.
He warned that failing to “stand up to Russia” would result in “instability” that “would be deeply damaging to all of us because you'll see further destabilization.”
Kyiv and Western governments say the rebels have repeatedly violated the terms of the agreement reached on February 12 in Minsk in talks between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande.
Fighting has subsided and there are hopes in the West that the rebels will halt an offensive they began in mid-January after ignoring the cease-fire and seizing Debaltseve, a key road and rail junction between Donetsk and the other separatist-controlled provincial capital, Luhansk, last week.
In what may have been an effort to reassure the West, Putin said February 23 that a war between Russia and Ukraine was "unlikely" and that he hoped the cease-fire would take hold.
But rebel attacks near Mariupol have raised concerns that the separatists may seek to take the largest government-held city in Donetsk province and push further westward toward Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.
Russia used troops and a referendum to seize control of Crimea after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv following months of huge protests over his decision to scrap plans for a landmark agreement with the European Union and tighten ties with Moscow instead.
Any major rebel offensive would threaten to shatter hopes for peace in a conflict that has killed more than 5,700 people since April and driven tensions between Moscow and the West to their highest point since the Cold War.
Putin repeated his denials of involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow has called a civil war despite what Kyiv and NATO say is incontrovertible evidence Russia has armed the rebels and sent troops to fight alongside them.
The February 12 agreement built on a 12-point plan for a cease-fire and steps toward peace that was signed by Ukraine, Russia, and the separatists in Minsk in September.
With reporting by Unian, Interfax, RIA, and Reuters