Ukraine Reports Russian Invasion on a New Front
DONETSK, Ukraine — Determined to preserve the pro-Russian revolt in eastern Ukraine, Russia reinforced what Western and Ukrainian officials described as a stealth invasion on Wednesday, sending armored troops across the border as it expanded the conflict to a new section of Ukrainian territory.
The latest incursion, which Ukraine’s military said included five armored personnel carriers, was at least the third movement of troops and weapons from Russia across the southeast part of the border this week, further blunting the momentum Ukrainian forces have made in weakening the insurgents in their redoubts of Donetsk and Luhansk farther north. Evidence of a possible turn was seen in the panicky retreat of Ukrainian soldiers on Tuesday from a force they said had come over the Russian border.Russia, which has denied it is helping the insurgents, did not acknowledge the military movements. But the Russians have signaled that they would not countenance a defeat of an insurgency in the heavily Russian eastern part of Ukraine, which would amount to a significant domestic political setback for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in his increasingly fractious relationship with the United States and its European allies.“Russia is clearly trying to put its finger on the scale to tip things back in favor of its proxies,” said a senior American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing intelligence reports. “Artillery barrages and other Russian military actions have taken their toll on the Ukrainian military.”
The Russian military movements carried the potential to poison any hope that a halt to the five-month-old conflict was any closer, one day after the presidents of both countries, at a meeting in Belarus, professed their desire for a solution. Russia’s behavior also raised the possibility of punitive new Western economic sanctions as a reprisal.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military in Kiev, said the Russian armored column entered the town of Amvrosiyivka, south of Donetsk, expanding what Western and Ukrainian officials have described as one of the main fronts in a multipronged counteroffensive directed by Russia. This week, Ukraine accused Russia of sending an armored column toward the coastal city of Mariupol, far from the fighting around Luhansk and Donetsk, with the aim of diverting Ukrainian forces to deal with that new threat.
The Obama administration accused Russia of lying about its intentions, while European officials angrily demanded answers from the Kremlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who perhaps has the most cordial relationship with Mr. Putin, telephoned him on Wednesday to request an explanation, her office said.
Evidence that Russia was seeking to change the course of the conflict was abundant this week in the small southeast border town of Novoazovsk, where Ukrainian forces beat a nervous retreat on Tuesday, under attack from what fleeing soldiers described as columns of tanks, artillery and combat troops coming across the border.
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Exhausted, filthy and dismayed, some Ukrainian soldiers staggering out of Novoazovsk for safer territory said they were cannon fodder for the attacking forces. As they spoke, tank shells whistled in from the east and exploded nearby.
Some of the Ukrainian soldiers appeared unwilling to fight. The commander of their unit, part of the Ninth Brigade from Vinnytsia, in western Ukraine, barked at the men to turn around, to no effect. “All right,” the commander said. “Anybody who refuses to fight, sit apart from the others.” Eleven men did, while the others returned to the city.
Some troops were in full retreat: A city busload of them careened past on the highway headed west, and purple curtains flapped through windows shot out by gunfire.