Ukraine Says Russian Forces Lead Major New Offensive in East

NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine — Tanks, artillery and infantry have crossed from Russia into an unbreached part of eastern Ukraine in recent days, attacking Ukrainian forces and causing panic and wholesale retreat not only in this small border town but a wide swath of territory, in what Ukrainian and Western military officials are calling a stealth invasion.

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 Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, along with the fighting outside the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Smoke rises during shelling in the town of Novoazovsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014.
Sergei Grits | AP
Smoke rises during shelling in the town of Novoazovsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014.

Exhausted, filthy and dismayed, Ukrainian soldiers staggering out of Novoazovsk for safer territory said Tuesday 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.

Others were in a full, chaotic retreat: a city bus load of them careened past headed west, purple curtains flapping through windows shot out by gunfire.

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Their behavior corroborated assertions made by Western and Ukrainian officials that Russia, despite its strenuous denials, was 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 levied increasingly punitive economic sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, on Tuesday asserted that the Russians had sent new columns of tanks and armor across the border. The American ambassador to Kiev, Geoff Pyatt, said a "Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway."

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, Western officials say.

To the south, Russia has been backing a separatist push toward the southern town of Mariupol, a major port on the Azov Sea, according to Western and Ukrainian officials. The Russian aim, one Western official said, was to open a new front that would divert Ukrainian forces from Donetsk and Lukhansk and possibly seize an outlet to the sea in the event that Russia tries to establish a separatist enclave in the eastern Ukraine.

Some Western officials fear the move might even be a step in what they suspect is a broader Russian strategy to carve out a land link to Crimea, the strategic Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in March, setting off Moscow's worst crisis with the West since the Cold War.

The Russian military's use of artillery from locations within Ukraine is of special concern to Western military officials, who say Russian artillery has already been used to shell Ukrainian forces near Luhansk. And along with the antiaircraft systems operated by separatists or Russian forces inside Ukraine, the artillery has the potential to alter the balance of power in the struggle for control of eastern Ukraine.

Russia has denied that it has intervened militarily in Ukraine and the separatists have asserted that they are using captured Ukrainian equipment. But American officials say they are confident that the Russian artillery, which is located in Ukraine's Krasnodon area, is Russia's since Ukrainian forces have not penetrated that deeply into that separatist controlled region. American officials also say the separatists have no experience in using such weaponry.

"We judge that self-propelled artillery is operated by Russians rather than separatists since no separatist training on this artillery has occurred to date," an Obama administration official said.

American officials say they also have imagery that shows the Russian military moving self-propelled artillery into position inside Ukraine last week and deploying them in firing position.

The Ukrainian retreat on Tuesday from the border area near Novoazovsk, came the same day that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, at a summit with his Ukrainian counterpart in Minsk, Belarus, continued to assert that Russia was a bystander. Mr. Putin called the Ukrainian insurgency an internal matter and that the Ukrainian government needed to negotiate a cease-fire.

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On the highway here, Sgt. Ihor Sharapov, a soldier with the Ukrainian border patrol unit, said he had seen tanks drive across the border but marked with flags of the separatist movement here, the Donetsk People's Republic.

The group that attacked the city crossed from Russia, and though some soldiers were convinced they had spent two days fighting the Russians, others said they had no way of knowing who was inside the tanks, or the identities of the infantry who crossed the border and advanced toward this town.

"I tell you they are Russians, but this is what proof I have," said Sgt. Aleksei Panko, holding up his thumb and index finger to form a zero. Sergeant Panko estimated about 60 armored vehicles crossed near Novoazovsk. "This is what happened: they crossed the border, took up positions and started shooting."

The Ukrainian Vinnytsia brigade met the cross-border advance over the six miles of countryside separating Novoazovsk from the Russian border, but later retreated to the western edge of town along the Rostov-Mariupol highway, where soldiers were collapsed in exhaustion on the roadside. "This is now a war with Russia," Sergeant Panko said.

The counteroffensive that Ukrainian officers said was at least in part staged across the border from Russia pushed the Ukrainian army off a 75 mile-long highway from Donetsk south to the Azov Sea. On Wednesday, it amounted to a no-man's land of vacated rural villages, roads crisscrossed by armored vehicle treads, felled trees and grass fires burning out of control, and panoramas of sunflower and corn rotting unharvested in the fields.

To the west of the Novoazovsk highway, the contrails of Ukrainian Grad rockets being launched rose toward the sky, and to the east, black smoke from their impacts where Ukrainian soldiers said the newly arrived armored columns were moving near the Russian border.

The countryside was changing hands and the Ukrainians falling back westward, leaving under fire along side roads. One such route was littered with two incinerated, destroyed Ukrainian army trucks, smoldering in the early evening, and an abandoned armored vehicle.

"The Ukrainians slipped away and the Donetsk People's Republic hasn't yet arrived," Roman Pespaltsev, a resident of the village of Starobeshovo south of Donetsk, said.

—By Andrew E. Kramer and Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times. Kramer reported from Novoazovsk, Ukraine, and Gordon from Washington. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.