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Updated: Tue, 02 Sep 2014 13:06:36 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Ukraine conflict: Putin muses on Russian forces taking Kyiv

A serviceman of the border service patrols in front of the seaport in Mariupol on Sunday, the same day that two border service patrol boats were attacked near the industrial city on the Azov Sea coast. Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

A serviceman of the border service patrols in front of the seaport in Mariupol on Sunday, the same day that two border service patrol boats were attacked near the industrial city on the Azov Sea coast. Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly boasted that his country's forces could conquer the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in two weeks if he were to order such an offensive.

Putin made the remarks last Friday in a phone conversation with Jose Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European Commission, Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper reported.

“If I want to, I can take Kyiv in two weeks,” the paper quoted Putin as saying.

Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin foreign policy adviser, was quoted by the Russian Interfax news agency as saying the report had taken Putin's remarks out of context and they "carried a completely different meaning."

Ushakov lashed out at Barroso, saying the leak of the remark was a breach of diplomatic practices and that it was "unworthy of a serious politician" to speak publicly about a private conversation. Barroso had briefed the EU's 28 leaders hours after the phone conversation at a summit in Brussels — from where the information eventually leaked.

The leak was reported as a Ukrainian military leader reported signs that Moscow was directly supporting separatist rebels in two rebel-held cities in eastern Ukraine.

Col. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council, told reporters on Tuesday that Russian troops had been spotted in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as other locations throughout the east. The claim could not be confirmed independently. Lysenko also said 15 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed over the previous day.

Lysenko's comments came after the country's defence minister said Ukraine's armed forces were expanding their strategy from just fighting separatists to facing the Russian army in a war that could cost "tens of thousands" of lives.

NATO believes 1,000 Russian troops in Ukraine

Putin's comment reportedly came in response to Barroso pointing out Ukrainian and Western reports that Russia had sharply escalated the conflict in eastern Ukraine by sending in regular army units. NATO estimates that at least 1,000 Russian soldiers have entered Ukraine, helping turn the tide in the last week in favour of the pro-Russian insurgents. The military alliance also says 20,000 other Russian soldiers have been positioned along the Ukraine-Russian border.

Ushakov on Tuesday reaffirmed Moscow's repeated denial that it has sent any soldiers into Ukraine, even though a rebel leader said last week that Russian servicemen on leave were among some 4,000 Russians fighting in Ukraine.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Valeriy Heletey said on his Facebook page that the counter-insurgency operation against the rebels is over and the nation's military was now facing the Russian army.

"This is our Great Patriotic War," he wrote, using the local terminology for the Second World War.

Russia's Foreign Ministry dismissed Heletey's remarks as "shocking" and accused him of trying to shift blame and keep his position amid a series of defeats suffered by the Ukrainian military.

New offensive along Sea of Azov coast

Pro-Russian rebels have been fighting Ukrainian government troops since mid-April in a conflict that has left more than 2,500 people dead and forced at least 340,000 to flee. In the last week, the rebels have scored significant gains on the ground, launching a new offensive along the Sea of Azov coast.

On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund said that if fighting persists in eastern Ukraine, the country will need billions of dollars in additional support.

The warning came in the IMF's first in-depth assessment since it granted Kyiv a $17-billion US bailout package in March. The program already faces a $3.5-billion shortfall through next year, with the Ukrainian economy set to shrink this year by more than six per cent.

Efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the hostilities, which followed the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russian president and Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, have failed.

Trenches dug to slow rebels near Mariupol

In Ukraine's southeast, Ukrainian forces have been securing the port city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea against an expected advance by pro-Russian rebels.

Large tank traps, designed to slow down a rebel attack, were laid down at the eastern approach to the city, and trenches have been dug on the city limits.

Some of the traps were taken from art installations in the city with paintings of flowers and doves still covering their surface.

The new security measures come after a spokesman for the rebels in nearby Novoazovsk, who identified himself only as Alexander, said their plan was to push westward into Mariupol, about 35 kilometres away from their current post, where Russian tanks moved in last week before the city fell to the rebels, following fierce fighting with Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has accused Russia of direct and open aggression in the region.

Preparations for battle in Mariupol come amid heightened tensions between Moscow and NATO, ahead of the alliance's conference in Wales later this week.

Leaders of NATO member countries are expected to discuss the creation of force that could be rapidly deployed to Eastern Europe.

More than 2,500 people have died in Ukraine since mid-April in fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatists. According to UN estimates, around 800 were members of Ukrainian government forces.

More than one million people have been displaced by the conflict in Ukraine, including 814,000 Ukrainians now in Russia with various forms of status, the UNHCR United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday.

Numbers displaced inside Ukraine by the fighting have nearly doubled in the past three weeks to at least 260,000 and more are fleeing, the agency said.

Updates to Russian military doctrine

Russia will update its military doctrine this year, partly in response to the conflict in Ukraine, a Kremlin security aide said on Tuesday.

The doctrine was last updated in 2010, when Russia identified NATO enlargement as a national threat and reaffirmed
its right to use nuclear weapons if its existence was endangered.

Mikhail Popov, deputy head of the Kremlin's advisory Security Council, told RIA news agency that Russia has become the target of an unprecedented propaganda war.

"Russia is being deliberately painted as the enemy, and its political course is seen as new threat to NATO," he said.

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