With the US State Department in a state of protracted hiatus for the time being, tensions are again rising between Russia and Ukraine, and especially in East Ukraine, where over the past few days the number of soldiers killed in an offensive by pro-Russian separatists has reportedly risen to seven, Ukraine's military said on Monday, in the deadliest outbreak of fighting in the east of the country since mid-December.
The clashes between Ukraine's military and the pro-Russian separatists coincide with U.S. President Donald Trump's call for better relations with Moscow that has alarmed Kiev while the conflict in its eastern region remains unresolved. According to Ukraine sources, the rebels began attacking government positions in the eastern frontline town of Avdiyivka on Sunday. Five soldiers were killed and nine wounded on Sunday and two more were killed on Monday, they said.
"The situation in the Avdiyivka industrial zone is challenging. The enemy continues to fire at our positions with heavy artillery and mortars," Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told a regular daily briefing. Naturally, since the media on both sides is clearly biased in its coverage, it came as no surprise that both local separatists news agencies, and Russia, denied escalation had occurred.
In the meantime, it appears that whether real or fabricated, the push to escalate another conflict is building, and on Wednesday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane came under rifle fire from a Russian drilling rig while flying near the Odessa gas field in the Black Sea. The plane was allegedly involved in drill over Black Sea, and was flying in Ukrainian air space.
"A Ukrainian transport plane came under fire today while flying over the Ukrainian maritime economic zone during a training mission. The crew members were not injured," Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak reported to President Petro Poroshenko as cited by Poroshenko's press secretary Svyatoslav Tsegolko.
Moments later, as expected, the Russian Black Sea Fleet categorically denied these claims.
"All Ukrainian claims of the alleged shooting at the An-26 plane are absolute lies," an official from the Black Sea Fleet's headquarters said in a statement. According to the statement, the Ukrainian An-26 military plane carried out on Wednesday afternoon two provocative approaches at extremely low altitude to Russia's Tavrida and Crimea-2 drilling platforms.
"During the plane's second approach, a security guard at one of the platforms fired four signal flares to prevent a possible collision of the plane with the platform's mast," the official stressed.
The news comes amid the joint naval drills of the seven North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states with the Ukrainian Naval Forces in the Black Sea, which started on Wednesday.
Moreover, the situation near the industrial town of Avdiivka and neighboring Yasynuvata has been tense for several days, with civilians being deprived of running water, central heating and electricity. The Ukrainian forces and Donbass militia are accusing each other of being responsible for escalation of fighting.
With the ongoing political power vacuum in the US, it is a possibility that the dormant conflict between Russia and Ukraine is rekindled in the coming days.