The rebel leader in Donetsk has said a column of military hardware is on its way to eastern Ukraine from Russia. Meanwhile, his fighters appeared to bolster their positions on the front lines, where they are fighting pitched battles with government forces in a desperate attempt to hold onto their ever-shrinking territory.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the newly appointed prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said during a meeting with separatist leaders that a column of military vehicles with weapons and personnel was advancing toward the Ukrainian frontier from Russia.
"I'd like to give you some good news," Zakharchenko told his comrades in an address on Aug. 15 that was published on YouTube. "At present, moving towards the corridor [from Russia to Ukraine that is controlled by the rebels] are... 150 items of military hardware, 30 of which are tanks and the rest are infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers."
Joining the military column are 1,200 personnel who had received four months' training in Russia, he added.
Alexander Zakharchenko, Donetsk People's Republic leader, says 1,200 military personnel who had received four months' training in Russia are en route to eastern Ukraine to join the separatist fight.
Russia has vehemently denied over the course of the months-long conflict repeated claims by Ukraine and the West that it has provided military aid to separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But two British journalists on Aug. 14 observed a convoy of 23 military vehicles passing from the Russian town of Donetsk into Ukraine's Luhansk Oblast near the Izvarino border crossing.
It was the first time journalists have witnessed such vehicles moving across the border. Observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported at least twice in recent weeks that they have seen "men in military dress" traveling freely from one side of the border to the other and back.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said evidence showed what he called a “Russian incursion” into Ukraine had occurred late on Aug. 14.
“Last night we saw a Russian incursion, a crossing of the Ukrainian border,” he told journalists then, following a meeting with the Danish defense minister. “It just confirms the fact that we are seeing a continuous flow of weapons and fighters from Russia into eastern Ukraine and it is a clear demonstration of continued Russian involvement in the destabilization of eastern Ukraine.”
Kyiv said the next morning that it had "eliminated" a "significant" part of the convoy with artillery fire. Russia's Defense Ministry denied the claim, brushing off the alleged incursion as "some kind of fantasy."
Still, the report sparked a wave of criticism by Western nations.
"Any unilateral military actions on the part of the Russian Federation in Ukraine under any pretext, including humanitarian, will be considered by the European Union as a blatant violation of international law," read a statement by EU foreign ministers on Aug. 15.
At the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call to "put an end to the flow of military goods, military advisers and armed personnel over the border."
A National Security and Defense Council map of the situation in Ukraine's embattled eastern regions on Aug. 16 shows a sliver of territory between Shakhtarsk and Torez to be controlled by government forces. However, a journey by a Kyiv Post journalist down the highway between the cities proved that Russian-backed rebels still controlled much of the area Kyiv reported to have reclaimed, including a vital highway.
In Donetsk, Zakharchenko also said that in past days the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics" have regained control over a strategically important road leading from Russia to Luhansk and Donetsk, which would allow for the Russian humanitarian convoy waiting on the border in Kamensk-Shakhtinksy to pass through without any hitches.
The road has also acted as an essential supply route for bringing military reinforcements to the regions from Russia, according to Kyiv and Western intelligence.
"The corridor between the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics exists now. Krasny Luch has been freed up completely, except for a small part in the outskirts, a small Ukrainian forces unit," the rebel leader said. "Luhansk has been rescued by the LNR [Luhansk People's Republic] forces. Together with the Luhansk forces, we have taken over Sverdlovsk. We took over Musisnsk, we are holding Vahrushevo. So there is a direct road to Luhansk."
Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council had said that it controlled the corridor, having cut off the rebels' access to Luhansk Oblast from Donetsk between the cities of Shakhtarsk and Torez near where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was purportedly shot out of the sky. Kyiv and the West believe it was hit by a rocket from a Soviet-era Buk advanced surface-to-air missile system smuggled across the Russia-Ukraine border.
But a journey down the highway from Donetsk to Snizhne on Aug. 16 proved Kyiv's report to be false. Several block posts along the route were manned by armed rebels, and while burned out armored vehicles, craters from shelling and bullet casings strewn about the road and surrounding fields indicated recent fights, there was no sign of Ukraine's armed forces near the highway or within several kilometers of it.
The Kyiv Post could not confirm, though, that the highway was open past Snizhne, as rebel fighters turned vehicles back at the city.
Loud explosions, a heavy presence of fighters in the area as well as a steady flow of military hardware and personnel through Snizhne gave the impression that a battle was raging on other side of the city, near Krasnyi Luch, an important junction city that allows for passage to Luhansk and the Russian border.
Dozens of military trucks, nine tanks, five armored transporters and scores of fighters in SUVs were seen rushing east toward the area. Some flew Russian flags and five of them were marked with the name Oplot, the eastern Ukrainian fight club whose head, Zakharchenko, is now the Donetsk separatist leader.
There were also reports of fighting elsewhere. Ukrainian media reported street fights had broken out in Luhansk between government forces and the rebels who have controlled the city since April. The provincial capital has been the scene of intense clashes in recent weeks. As a result, it has been without power and water for 14 days, according to the city council.
Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said in Kyiv that as the clashes raged an increasing number of rebel fighters were abandoning their posts in the besieged city of Luhansk and preparing to leave Donetsk to seek safe haven in Russia.
"A mood of panic is spreading and rebels are trying to leave through the small gaps that remain," he said.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development.