NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine – Pushing west in a new offensive along Ukraine’s strategic coastline, heavily armed Russian-backed separatist forces captured new territory Wednesday far from their previous battles with government troops.
The bold offensive along a new southeastern front raised the prospect that the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea, which also would give them control over the entire Azov Sea.
After a third day of heavy shelling that sent many residents fleeing, rebel fighters with dozens of tanks and armored vehicles entered Novoazovsk, a resort town of 40,000 on the Azov Sea, the mayor told the Associated Press.
Novoazovsk lies along the road linking Russia to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol and onto Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in March.
The separatist attack appears to have caught government forces off guard, and they were scrambling Wednesday to build up defenses. The offensive also adds to growing evidence that the rebels receive Russian support.
Oleg Sidorkin, the mayor of Novoazovsk, told the AP by telephone that the rebel forces had rolled into town from positions near Ukraine’s southernmost border with Russia.
To travel to this spot through Ukraine from the main front line around Donetsk and Luhansk, far to the north, the rebels would have had to cross territory controlled by government troops. The more logical conclusion is that they came across the nearby Russian border.
Ukraine and Western governments have long accused Russia of playing a direct role in the conflict, supplying troops and weaponry to the rebels. Russia consistently denies the claims, but its stance is increasingly dismissed abroad.
The U.S. government accused Russia on Wednesday of orchestrating a new military campaign in Ukraine that is helping rebel forces expand their fight and sending in tanks, rocket launchers and armored vehicles.
“These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway in Donetsk and Luhansk,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. She also voiced concern about overnight deliveries of materiel in southeast Ukraine near Novoazovsk and said Russia was being dishonest about its actions, even to its own people.
Russian forces, she said, are being sent 30 miles inside Ukraine, without them or their families knowing where they are going. She cited reports of burials in Russia for those who’ve died in Ukraine and wounded Russian soldiers being treated in a St. Petersburg hospital.
Ukraine has already lost more than 450 miles of coastline in Crimea, along with a major naval port and significant mineral rights in the Black Sea.
If the separatists were to seize a land bridge to Crimea that would be a further loss of more than 150 miles of coastline. That would also give them or Russia control over the entire Azov Sea and any offshore oil and gas reserves.
That would leave Ukraine with about 270 miles of coastline to the west of Crimea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, met Tuesday for their first one-on-one meeting, but there was no indication of a swift resolution to the fighting that has claimed at least 2,000 civilian lives.