MOSCOW (AP) — A defiant President Vladimir Putin on Monday called the Ukrainian army a "NATO foreign legion," reflecting his readiness to stand up to the West regardless of rising economic costs, as Standard & Poor's rating agency downgraded Russia's credit rating to junk.
While the Russian ruble tumbled further on the news of the downgrade, Putin's spokesman shrugged off the Western threat of more sanctions as "short-sighted."
The Kremlin's uncompromising stance is rooted in its desire to prevent Ukraine from ever joining NATO by securing a broad autonomy for the rebellious provinces in the east. To avoid being called a party to the conflict, as Ukraine and the West see it, Russia is pushing the Ukrainian government to speak directly to the rebels.
The latest rebel offensive, which involved the deadly shelling of a strategic port city of Mariupol over the weekend, appeared aimed at pressuring Kiev into such talks.
Speaking to students in St. Petersburg, Putin said the Ukrainian leadership was to blame for the upsurge in violence and accused it of using civilians as "cannon fodder" in the conflict.
"(Ukraine's army) is not even an army, it's a foreign legion, in this case a NATO foreign legion," Putin said, adding that it's serving the goal of "the geopolitical containment of Russia, which absolutely don't coincide with the national interests of the Ukrainian people."
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed the claim and accused Russia of sending large numbers of heavy weapons to the rebels. "We have seen a substantial increase in the flow of equipment from Russia to the separatists in Ukraine," he said.
A Russian envoy at the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe rejected those claims, arguing that the rebels are using old Soviet-era weapons they seized from the Ukrainian arsenals.
Andrey Kelin, who spoke after the OSCE called a special session on the uptick in fighting, said the rebels are using "very old Soviet equipment" dating back to the mid-1960s.
Ever since the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine flared up in April following Moscow's annexation of Crimea, Russia has denied Western accusations that it has backed the insurgents with troops and weapons.
But even though Ukrainian troops and the rebels use the same types of Soviet-built arms, the sheer number of heavy weapons in the rebels' possession has been seen in the West as a proof of Moscow's involvement in the conflict.
From the onset of the conflict, which has claimed more than 5,100 since April, Russia urged the Ukrainian authorities to offer broad powers to the east and provide amnesty to the rebels.
A cease-fire deal signed in September by representatives of the government and the insurgents included some of those provisions along with a pledge to withdraw foreign fighters and place OSCE monitors on the Russian-Ukrainian border, but it has been violated by both parties and fighting has continued.
A lull in fighting in December raised hopes for a peaceful settlement, but hostilities escalated again in recent weeks as the rebels launched a series of new offensives.
Russia blamed the renewed fighting on the Ukrainian side, saying it has tried to settle the conflict by force.
"They used a peace break exclusively to regroup their forces, and they started it all over again," Putin said. "It's a real tragedy."
In Sunday's phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Monday's call with French President Francois Hollande, Putin blamed the new round of hostilities on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stonewalling his proposal to pull back heavy weapons from the line of division agreed in September. The Kremlin said that Putin again emphasized the need for Kiev to speak to the rebels.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argued that the rebels had launched an offensive to protect the areas under their control from Ukrainian artillery barrage.
"To expect that they (the rebels) would simply reconcile themselves to being bombed would be naive," Lavrov said. "They started to act... with the goal of destroying Ukrainian army positions being used to shell populated areas."
The tough statements came in the wake of Western threats that Russia would face further sanctions for its actions following the shelling of Mariupol, where 30 people were killed by rocket fire on Saturday.
Donetsk, the main rebel stronghold, was wracked by artillery explosions throughout the day, but there was no fighting in Mariupol on Monday. A road leading out of the city into rebel territory was closed off by Ukrainian forces, making it unclear whether the rebels had advanced closer to the city outskirts. The city streets were quiet as the families of those killed Sunday gathered to bury their dead.
Separatist leaders initially announced over the weekend that they had begun an offensive on Mariupol, but quickly backtracked and blamed Ukraine for the carnage after the extent of civilian casualties became known. The OSCE said the shelling of Mariupol came from rebel-controlled territory.
Fighting near Mariupol has raised fears that the rebels could try to seize the city to build a land corridor into Crimea.
President Barack Obama said Sunday that Washington would work with its European partners to "ratchet up the pressure on Russia" in response to the latest violence. EU foreign ministers will hold an extraordinary session on Thursday to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
Lavrov warned the West against using the events to "whip up anti-Russian hysteria," and Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the threat of more sanctions as "destructive and short-sighted." ''Such threats and blackmail haven't succeeded in forcing Russia to change its continuous stance, and they never will," Peskov said.
The Russian currency tumbled by nearly 7 percent to about 68.5 rubles to the dollar on the news of Standard & Poor's decision to downgrade the nation's credit grade by one notch to junk status.
The agency dropped the rating to BB+ from BBB- as it sees the country's financial buffers at risk amid a slide in the country's currency and weakening revenue from oil exports.
Russia's economy has been hit hard by the double impact of weaker prices for its energy exports as well as Western sanctions.
Laura Mills in Moscow, Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, Ukraine, Evgeny Maloletka in Mariupol, Ukraine, Lorne Cook in Brussels and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.