After a public handshake between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Minsk on Aug. 26, hopes for peace have vanished as Ukraine and its allies say Russia has sent more than 1,000 regular troops into the two easternmost oblasts of Ukraine.
Poroshenko accused Russia of instigating a “sharp aggravation” by having Russian military forces take the tactically important southeastern Ukrainian city of Novoazovsk. Military experts, meanwhile, believe the new offensive could be the beginning of an attempt to take over southeastern Ukraine and adjoin it with the Kremlin-occupied Crimean peninsula.
“To be sincere, the situation really is extremely difficult, and nobody is going to simplify it,” Poroshenko said on Aug. 28. “But it is under control, under enough control not to give way to panic, keep a cool head, common sense and a plan of our further actions.”
Oleg Odnorozhenko, deputy head of the Azov Battalion, whose Ukrainian fighters were involved in combat in Novoazovsk on Aug. 27, was more explicit: “This is clear that we have a full-scale Russian invasion.”
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called for an emergency session of the United Nation’s Security Council to demand immediate action. A meeting was scheduled for 9 p.m. Kyiv time on Aug. 28, although Russia can veto any action.
“Ukraine can face and cope with the Russian-led terrorists and mercenaries supported by Russia,” Yatsenyuk said. “But it is very difficult to cope with the Russian army (Europe’s largest) and with Russia as a nuclear state armed to the teeth.”
Poroshenko, meanwhile, cancelled his scheduled visit to Turkey to meet with the National Security and Defense Council, saying “the president’s place is in Kyiv.”
Condemnation – but no call for specific action against Russia -- came quickly from Ukraine’s Western allies. American ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey R. Pyatt stated: “Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory,” in a Twitter post. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt suggested that was happening now is outright war, saying that “we are now evidently seeing fighting between regular Russian and regular Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. There is a word for this,” also posting on Twitter. However, a European Union official said additional sanctions will not be considered against Russia at the next summit on Aug. 30.
Earlier on Aug. 28, the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council confirmed that the Donetsk Oblast city of Novoazovsk and surrounding villages had been captured by Russian forces.
Russia has denied sending in its own official military, but issued the same denials going back to Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean militarily by force starting on Feb. 27 – only to admit the presence of their forces after the March annexation was completed.
Prior to the new Russian offensive, Ukrainian forces were successfully regaining territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Russian attack began on Aug. 27, when Ukrainian fighters in the Dnipro-1 volunteer battalion say Russian armored columns entered Ukrainian territory, forcing Ukrainian forces to retreat. The Russians took the city of Novoazovsk, with 12,000 people, on the Azov Sea.
“First there was just shelling from their territory across the border, but then they rushed forward,” a tall bearded fighter with a nom de guerre of “the Jew” told the Kyiv Post. “There were no (separatist Donetsk People’s Republic) people among them. They were all Russians.”
The Ukrainian fighters said that Russian forces entered Ukraine with tanks, howitzers and rocket launchers while being supported by cross-border artillery fire originating from Russia.
Lacking heavy weaponry, the Ukrainian forces including soldiers, border guards and volunteer battalions had to retreat. “We are asking to reinforce us with aviation or artillery, but the artillery was too far away, and the aviation is scared to fly as the Russians have anti-aircraft air defense systems,” the Jew said.
Being outgunned by increasingly well-outfitted forces from Russia has been a growing issue for Ukrainian forces. “Without weapons, battalions cannot be effective,” Dnipro-1 battalion commander Vladimir Shilov said at a news conference in Kyiv, calling on the Interior Ministry to provide them with heavier weapons.
More than 1,000 protesters gathered outside of the General Staff building, where Ukraine’s military headquarters is located, in Kyiv on Aug. 28 to demand heavy weapons for soldiers and other changes in the military upper brass.
Currently, Ukrainian fighters say Russian forces are setting up Smerch launch rocket systems in Novoazovsk and aiming them at the Ukrainian-held city of Mariupol.
The self-proclaimed leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, has made it clear that taking control of Mariupol, a port city with nearly 500,000 residents, is a priority. It is the largest city under government control in Donetsk Oblast, home to 10 percent – or 4.5 million – of Ukraine’s population.
Ukrainian and Russian forces are battling for control of the nation's two eastern oblasts on the three fronts: the provincial capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as the Azov Sea coastal city of Mariupol. (mediarnbo.org)
In the village of Bezimenne, which means “no name” in Ukrainian, some 14 kilometers from Novoazovsk, there were dozens of fighters from the Dnipro 1 and Azov battalions lingering on Aug. 28, just watching Russian troops. Driving their shabby cars they claim they have no means to fight back if the Russians decide to approach. Ukraine’s fighters said that Russian soldiers were attacking their counterparts who didn’t retreat from Novoazovsk quickly enough.
“There are no (regular) Ukrainian army here, they all moved to Mariupol,” said Volodymyr, fighter of Dnipro 1, a man in his 40s who used to be Dnipropetrovsk businessman before the war.
Volodymyr added that some soldiers are still fleeing Novoazovsk in small groups along the fields and forests, and when detected by Russian they are being shelled.
The pro-Ukrainian fighters say hundreds of Russian soldiers and dozens of Russian tanks are now present in Novoazovsk.
Mariupol residents have begun to flee amid fears of an approaching assault, with refugees from war-torn Donetsk, Horlivka and Illovaisk forced to flee again and with civilians allowed to leave the city but not enter.
At the checkpoint on the way to Novoazovsk, the Kyiv Post saw soldiers digging trenches and preparing antitank barriers still decorated with floral ornaments from Ukraine’s recent Independence Day celebrations.
Several people were killed in Mariupol in April when the pro-Ukrainian fighters pushed separatists out of the city, but has been largely peaceful since.
The presence of Russian forces escalates the war significantly.
A day before Putin and Poroshenko met in Minsk on Aug. 26, the Security Service of Ukraine announced the capture of 10 Russian soldiers driving military vehicles some 14 kilometers inside Ukraine. A Russian Defense Ministry source said they had entered Ukraine by mistake. In a video, one detained soldier said he had never been told they were entering Ukraine.
“I did not see where we crossed the border. They just told us we were going on a 70-kilometer march over three days,” said a man who identified himself as Ivan Milchakov, who also said he was based in the Russian city of Kostroma.
“My vehicle was hit and blown up,” said Ivan Romantsev. “Then I understood it was not just a military exercise and I got scared. Now I understand we were sent to fight people we shouldn’t have been fighting.”
In Russia, relatives of the soldiers asked why the soldiers were never told they were entering a war zone and why journalists investigating the graves of freshly buried paratroopers have been attacked.
In Ukraine, the so-called “stealth war” continues with all the elements of a traditional war except for a formal declaration.
In the city Urzuf, on the Azov Sea shore, Azov battalion deputy head Odnorozhenko, waits. “Russia has no chances to win this war,” he said. “The only question is what price Ukraine will pay for the victory.”
Editor’s Note: This article is produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the U.S.Agency for International Development. Kyiv Post+ is a special project covering Russia’s war against Ukraine and the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution. Content is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.