KIEV, Ukraine — Russian forces in two armored columns captured a key southeastern coastal town near the Russian border Thursday after Ukrainian forces retreated in the face of superior firepower, a Ukrainian military spokesman said.
The two Russian columns, including tanks and armored fighting vehicles, entered the town of Novoazovsk on the Sea of Azov after a battle in which Ukrainian army positions came under fire from Grad rockets launched from Russian territory, according to the spokesman, Col. Andriy Lysenko.
“Our border servicemen and guardsmen retreated as they did not have heavy equipment,” Lysenko said in a statement.
Ukrainian authorities have denounced the latest fighting as a Russian invasion of their territory, intended to prop up pro-Moscow separatists who have been losing ground to Ukrainian forces and to open a new front in the southeastern corner of Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials said earlier that Ukrainian troops were battling combined Russian and separatist forces on the new southern front around Novoazovsk, about eight miles west of the Russian border. The Ukrainian military also said Russian troops were increasing surveillance from northern Crimea, the autonomous Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Moscow in March.
Buttressing the Ukrainian accounts, NATO released satellite images Thursday of what it said were Russian artillery, vehicles and troops in and around eastern Ukraine. One image showed what NATO officials said was a convoy with self-propelled artillery in the area of Krasnodon, inside territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists on Aug. 21.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said the U.S. must send a another message to Russia that it’s actions are unacceptable.
“Moscow’s invasion and major escalation in Ukraine demands a strong and immediate response,” Ayotte said. “I call on the President to immediately impose tougher sanctions against Russia and provide the Ukrainian government the weapons they need and have long requested to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Lysenko said Thursday that two columns of Russian troops, tanks and artillery began entering Ukraine from Russian territory around 12:30 p.m. “Russian servicemen” also control several other localities around Novoazovsk, he said. There have been reports of a Russian BM-27 Uragan missile system in the area, Lysenko said, aggravating a situation that has become “more complicated” in the last 24 hours.
Ukrainian forces have begun fortifying positions around Mariupol, a key port city 28 miles west of Novoazovsk, in anticipation that Russia could be trying to secure a road link to annexed Crimea.
Over the past week, separatist rebels in the Luhansk region have been replaced by regular Russian troops, Lysenko said. In addition, Russian medical personnel and equipment arrived at a hospital in Krasnodon, close to the Russian border about 30 miles southeast of Luhansk, “after which wounded and killed mercenaries were mass-delivered to the hospital,” he said.
“The presence of doctors from the neighboring country on terrorist-controlled territory is yet another piece of evidence to the fact that regular Russian servicemen are involved in the conflict,” the spokesman said. He cited a “Mothers Committee” of Russian soldiers as saying that about 400 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in Ukraine so far during the Russian intervention.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned Thursday of unspecified “consequences” if Russia does not end its “large-scale incursions” into southeastern Ukraine.
“The international community has already warned Russia that such provocative actions would be completely unacceptable and illegal,” he said in a statement. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated willingness to resolve the conflict peacefully “is not credible when Russia is supporting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with arms and troops,” he said. “Such activity must cease immediately.”
Referring to a “Russian-directed counteroffensive,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday: “Clearly, that is of deep concern to us, but we’re also concerned by the Russian government’s unwillingness to tell the truth, even as its soldiers are found 30 miles inside Ukraine.”
Widespread reports of Russian troop movements and fighting in Ukraine provoked renewed criticism from NATO, whose secretary general said in an interview with British reporters Wednesday that it will deploy forces at new bases in eastern Europe for the first time in response to the Ukraine crisis and to deter Putin, according to the Guardian newspaper.
“We have reports from multiple sources showing quite a lively Russian involvement in destabilizing eastern Ukraine,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “We have seen artillery firing across the border and also inside Ukraine. We have seen a Russian military buildup along the border. Quite clearly, Russia is involved in destabilizing eastern Ukraine. . . . You see a sophisticated combination of traditional conventional warfare mixed up with information and primarily disinformation operations. It will take more than NATO to counter such hybrid warfare effectively.”
Moscow will consider the activity of NATO forces near Russia’s borders in its own military planning, Russia’s envoy to NATO told the Interfax news agency Thursday.