Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov also claimed Russia would not intervene militarily in Ukraine, defying reports by the Ukrainian government, Nato and Western nations that Russia has already sent troops, artillery and tanks across Ukraine’s south-east border to fight alongside the separatists.
“There will be no military intervention,” Mr Lavrov told students at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, the first day of classes for schools and universities across the country. “We call for an exclusively peaceful settlement of this severe crisis, this tragedy.”
Diplomats are holding a new round of talks in Minsk on the crisis including representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Separatist leader Andrei Purgin, also was to take part and told reporters that the priority was to win recognition of their independence in eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population.
He said they also were willing to discuss the exchange of prisoners and a temporary ceasefire.
Ukrainian National Security Council spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko said Ukrainian forces had been ordered to retreat from the airport in Luhansk, the second-largest rebel-held city, in the face of an intensifying assault that he blamed on “professional artillery gunmen of the Russian armed forces”.
Russia consistently denies allegations that it has sent troops or equipment into Ukraine. But Col Lysenko said that “not less than four battalions and tactical groups of the Russian armed forces are active in Ukraine”.
A battalion consists of about 400 soldiers.
The assault on the Azov Sea coast that began last week has raised concerns that the rebels are aiming to establish a land corridor from Russia to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in March.
Yesterday, missiles were fired from the shore at two Ukrainian coast guard cutters about three miles (5km) out to sea, sinking one of them, Col Lysenko said.