Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared the leadership of neighboring Ukraine to Nazis while reiterating Russia's denial that it is at war in eastern Ukraine, according to an interview published Monday.
"We are not fighting the Ukrainian regime," Lavrov told the Russian news outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda in comments echoed by state media.
"Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine who live in the Donbass are fighting with the Ukrainian regime, which has all the characteristics of being Nazis and neo-Nazi," Lavrov said, without elaborating.
He was referring to the Donetsk Basin, an area across Ukraine's two eastern regions on the Russian border, where pro-Russian separatists have been battling the Ukrainian military for more than four years.
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Ukraine alleges that Russia is directly involved in the conflict. More than 10,000 people, including 2,700 civilians, have been killed in the fighting, according to estimates by the United Nations.
Lavrov insisted that Russia maintains a relationship with the Ukrainian government separate from "this regime that ended up in power through the West's betrayal of all norms of international law."
Ukraine's parliament voted in February 2014 to oust its Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, amid mass protests calling for closer ties with the West after he decided not to sign a long-planned partnership deal with the European Union.
Russia responded to the ouster by annexing Ukraine's southern Crimea region, the site of a major Russian naval base, and the pro-Russian rebellion erupted in eastern Ukraine.
Within a few months Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was elected on promises of EU integration and then signed the deal. Relations between the former Soviet neighbours have plummeted to an all-time low.