Ukrainian troops on guard in a truck in Novoazovsk on Wednesday. (AFP)
Novoazovsk (Ukraine), Aug. 27: Tanks, artillery and infantry have crossed from Russia into an unbreached part of eastern Ukraine in recent days, in what Ukrainian and western military officials are calling a stealth invasion.
The Russian forces are attacking Ukrainian forces and causing panic and wholesale retreat not only in this small border town but a wide swathe of territory.
The attacks outside this city and in an area to the north essentially have opened a new, third front in the war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists, along with the fighting outside the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Exhausted, filthy and dismayed, Ukrainian soldiers staggering out of Novoazovsk for safer territory said yesterday that the forces coming from Russia had treated them like cannon fodder. As they spoke, tank shells whistled in from the east and exploded nearby.
Some of the retreating Ukrainian soldiers appeared unwilling to fight. The commander of their unit, part of the 9th 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 a full, chaotic retreat: a city-busload of them careened past on the highway headed west, purple curtains flapping through windows shot out by gunfire.
Their behaviour corroborated assertions by western and Ukrainian officials that Russia, despite its strenuous denials, is orchestrating a new counteroffensive to help the besieged separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who have been reeling from aggressive Ukrainian military advances in recent weeks.
The Obama administration, which has placed increasingly punitive economic sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, yesterday asserted that the Russians had sent new columns of tanks and armour across the border.
Russian forces have been trying to help the separatists break the siege of Luhansk and have been fighting to open a corridor to Donetsk from the Ukrainian-Russian border.
To the south, Russia has been backing a separatist push towards the southern town of Mariupol, a major port on the Azov Sea, according to western and Ukrainian officials.