Moscow, Russia | — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday ordered that retaliatory measures be taken in response to Western sanctions against his country, as a top deputy announced an oil deal with Iran that may weaken international efforts to halt the development of that nation’s nuclear program.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also called for an international humanitarian intervention in Ukraine’s battle-torn east, a measure that some Western officials have worried may be a precursor to a unilateral Russian effort there as officials say Russian troops are again building up at the border.
A U.S. military team of “about a dozen” personnel arrived Tuesday at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, said the Pentagon’s spokesman, Rear Adm. John F. Kirby. They were sent there to offer advice to countries that are working to investigate the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
The combined efforts came in response to the latest round of Western sanctions and as pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine are increasingly on the defensive.
Putin said in a meeting with regional leaders that “the political tools of economic pressure are unacceptable and run counter to all norms and rules,” and he said he had issued orders to take steps to boost domestic manufacturers at the expense of non-Russian ones, although he offered no details.
Also on Tuesday, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak signed an agreement with Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh to broaden the countries’ economic cooperation over the next five years, focusing on energy and infrastructure.
United States and European Union officials last week expanded their sanctions against Russian economic sectors, businesses and individuals, targeting the energy, defence and financial industries after they said that Russia had failed to calm the increasingly violent conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Pro-Russian rebels on Tuesday appeared to be getting pushed back further into their stronghold of Donetsk. Ukrainian forces advanced into the outskirts of the city in what appeared to be the beginning of a major push to oust the insurgents.
Gunfire and loud explosions, apparently from rocket fire, were exchanged inside Donetsk’s western edge, the city government reported on its Web site. Artillery landed on a house, killing an elderly woman, along with her dog, according to the Associated Press.
The military has been encircling the city for several weeks now, and officials have stated that their goal is to “liberate” both Donetsk and Luhansk, the other main rebel stronghold. Residents have been sleeping in basements to protect themselves from the shelling. The military has announced humanitarian corridors and urged all Donetsk residents to evacuate. Most buses and trains are still operating.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said that it would seek an international “humanitarian mission” in the east, saying that the eastern regions of Ukraine were “on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.”
The conflict has led to an increasing number of civilian deaths and a growing refugee crisis. Even as fighting in Donetsk was intensifying, the United Nations released figures showing that more than 285,000 people have fled their homes in eastern Ukraine. It estimated that 168,000 people have sought refuge in Russia and that more than 117,000 are displaced inside Ukraine.
Western officials have said that Russia is providing the rebels with heavy weaponry, including tanks and antiaircraft missile systems — one of which, they say, was used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. For that reason, any Russian-led initiative to send a peacekeeping mission to eastern Ukraine is likely to be met with skepticism at the U.N. Security Council, analysts said.
The advance on Donetsk came as Kiev accused Moscow of a “provocation” in Russian war games being conducted in the southwest of the country. Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Tuesday that Russia is continuing a military buildup at the border and that every day troops fire from inside Russia toward Ukrainian positions.
“We demand Russia stop such crimes against the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said.
Lysenko estimated that 45,000 Russian troops are at the border and said they are equipped with hundreds of tanks, armoured vehicles, military planes and helicopters. NATO and U.S. estimates have been lower than that, ranging from 12,000 to 40,000. Russian forces have previously built up along the border, only to be pulled back.
The advocacy group Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that rebels in eastern Ukraine had endangered hospitals and their staffs, threatening doctors, commandeering ambulances to transport able-bodied fighters and destroying medical equipment and hospital furniture.
“Pro-Russian insurgents’ attacks on medical units and personnel are putting sick and vulnerable people and those who care for them at risk,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher with the group. Human Rights Watch has also said that the Ukrainian military has conducted indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets.
Fighting also has hampered a Dutch-led team searching the wreckage of the passenger plane that was shot down last month, but on Tuesday the forensics experts were able to work and found a few personal possessions near the village of Rozsypne, they said in a statement.