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Declaring that "Russian forces have entered Ukraine," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko held an emergency security session today as pro-Russia rebels launched a powerful new offensive in the east. The new front comes amid increasing accusations – and evidence – of Russian military forces being directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine.
The town of Novoazovsk, located in southern Ukraine between Russia and the now-annexed Crimea Peninsula, had earlier escaped the violence that has swept over parts of the country. However, only a few hours after a landmark meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents late Tuesday, shelling began there. Pro-Russian rebels drove Ukrainian forces out of the town on Wednesday, The New York Times reports, with some Ukrainian soldiers in full retreat and refusing to fight. Associated Press reporters were barred by separatists from entering Novoazovsk today.
The new southeastern front raised fears that the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea. If successful, it could give them or Russia control over the entire Sea of Azov and the gas and mineral riches that energy experts believe it contains. Ukraine already has lost roughly half its coastline, several major ports and significant Black Sea mineral rights in March when Russia annexed Crimea.
In Mariupol, a city of 450,000 about 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the west, a brigade of Ukrainian forces arrived at the airport on Wednesday afternoon, while deep trenches were dug a day earlier on the city's edge.
The BBC reports that the incursion could be used as a way to divert Ukrainian troops from Luhansk and Donetsk, where they have made headway against pro-Russian separatists in recent months.
Ukraine accused Russia this week of sending heavy weaponry into southern Ukraine to aid pro-Russian rebels. National security spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said Russian soldiers crossed as far as 30 miles beyond the border in armored personnel carriers and a truck this week.
The prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic acknowledged today that there are Russian servicemen fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, CNN reports.
Alexander Zakharchenko claims there are between 3,000 and 4,000 Russian volunteers fighting with the rebels. Some of these individuals are retired Russian military, Mr. Zakharchenko said in a televised statement on Russia 24, a state-run station. “[T]hey came to us to struggle for our freedom instead of their vacations," he said.
Accusations of direct Russian involvement in Ukraine have prompted Western governments to implement sanctions against Russia, despite Moscow’s repeated denials. Russia refers to the crisis in Ukraine as a national issue that must be resolved internally.
The Obama administration this week accused Russia of moving artillery and air defenses to help pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine.
“These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman. Ms. Psaki criticized Russia’s “unwillingness to tell the truth” about its military’s role in Ukrainian territory, reports The New York Times.
International leaders from France to Germany to NATO officials have expressed alarm.
"I think there's a shift here that we may be witnessing, very recently, from largely covert, ambiguous, deniable support to what appears increasingly to be flat-out, overt and obvious [support] and with the only form of ambiguity being that the Russians ... claim it is not happening," a NATO diplomat told reporters in Brussels on the condition of anonymity.
NATO officials are expected to give a briefing today on the situation in Ukraine.
French President François Hollande said this week that if Russian soldiers are in Ukraine, "it would be intolerable and unacceptable." German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir Putin for clarification on the Kremlin's involvement.
"The latest reports of the presence of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory must be explained," Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said of the call. "She [Merkel] emphasized Russia's major responsibility for de-escalation and watching over its own frontiers."
A report by the UN found that the death toll in eastern Ukraine over the past month grew to at least 36 people killed each day. An estimated 2,200 people have died since the conflict began in April, according to the UN.