Ukrainian authorities have announced the suspension of all cargo traffic with areas held by Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country, prompting Russia to urge Kyiv to cancel the measure to avoid a "humanitarian catastrophe."
Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov announced the decision on March 15, shortly after President Petro Poroshenko proposed it at a session of the council.
The move comes after the government took steps this week to end a rail and road blockade established by Ukrainians opposed to any trade with the separatists, who control a portion of eastern Ukraine that includes coal mines and other industrial enterprises that have long been a crucial part of the country's economy. The activists maintaining the blockade called such commerce "trade in blood."
Poroshenko said that only humanitarian cargoes should be permitted to cross into separatist-held areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, a swath of Ukraine known as the Donbas.
However, Russia's Foreign Ministry immediately urged an end to the blockade, saying that the situation risked turning into a "humanitarian catastrophe."
The ministry said in a statement on its website that Kyiv was responsible for a recent flare-up of tensions in eastern Ukraine.
Turchynov said the suspension will remain in effect until the Russia-backed separatists relinquish control over enterprises in the Donbas and comply with the much-violated 2015 Minsk agreement. The European-brokered deal set out steps to end the war between government forces and the separatists -- which the UN said in a March 15 report has killed at least 9,940 people since April 2014 -- and restore Kyiv's control over the border with Russia, but it appears unlikely to implemented in full anytime soon.
The European-brokered deal sets out steps to end the war between government forces and the separatists, which has killed more than 9,750 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014, and restore Kyiv's control over the border with Russia -- but it appears unlikely to implemented in full any time soon.
Shortages And Outages
The makeshift blockade put Poroshenko's government in a difficult position, adding to strains on Ukraine's war-depleted economy and opening the authorities up to accusations of colluding with the Russia-backed separatists.
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It hampered deliveries of coal from the Donbas to power plants elsewhere in Ukraine, contributing to electricity shortages and outages that prompted Poroshenko to declare an emergency in late February and urge all Ukrainians to try to conserve energy.
Meanwhile, the separatists responded to the activists' blockade by seeking, as of March 1, to seize control of Ukrainian enterprises in the territory they hold, further aggravating the crisis.
Coal producer DTEK, part of Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov's business empire, said on March 15 that the separatists have taken control of its biggest mines in separatist-held territory as well as a power plant and power distribution business. DTEK had said on March 9 that it still had control of its mining operations in the separatist-held areas but had been forced to idle them.
Citing an unidentified Russian steel-industry source, Russian news agency RBK reported on March 15 that the Russian government has urged big steelmakers to provide iron-ore to plants in separatist-held areas in eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the separatists responded to the activists' blockade by announcing they would take control of enterprises in the territory they hold as of March 1, further aggravating the crisis.
Turchynov was quoted as saying that the Security and Defense Council requested from the Interior Ministry, National Police, and the Security Service to implement additional measures to beef up public safety and prevent sabotage and terrorist acts, as well as attempts to disrupt social order.
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Turchynov also said that the commanding staff of the Ukrainian armed forces in Donbas was ordered to carry out "necessary measures to stand against possible provocations" by the separatists.
The government took steps to end the makeshift blockade on March 13-14. Security forces detained several dozen activists who were blocking a railway line, dismantled their camp, and cordoned off the area next to a key railway hub in the Donetsk region.
'Kindling' Russian Aggression
Those moves angered opposition lawmakers, government critics, and nationalist activists who held protests in several cities.
Opposition lawmakers demanded answers from Poroshenko, the Interior Ministry, and Ukraine's security service (SBU) on March 14 over the detentions.
Poroshenko lashed out at the "blockaders" during the Security and Defense Council meeting on March 15, saying that their actions did not support Ukraine's territorial integrity but "on the contrary, made it more difficult to secure it."
"They weakened Ukraine's influence on the other side of the contact line," he said, referring to the front line between government forces and separatist fighters in the Donbas.
"They did not remove fears imposed on our compatriots by Russian propaganda but increased them...They worsened the situation faced by our people held in [separatist] captivity," Poroshenko said. "They did not curb Russia's aggressiveness, but kindled it even more."
After a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president was pushed from power by protests in Kyiv in February 2014, Russia seized the Crimea Peninsula from Kyiv's control and fomented separatism in the country's east and south, where many people speak Russian.
Russia denies involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, despite what Kyiv and Western nations say is overwhelming evidence that it has sent substantial numbers of troops and weapons across the border to support separatist forces.
Russia’s interference in Ukraine has badly strained its ties with the West, prompting the European Union, the United States, and other nations to impose sanctions.
With reporting by UNIAN and Reuters