Putin calls for exit corridor for Ukrainian troops trapped in southeast
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday hailed pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine as “insurgents” battling an army that he compared to Nazi invaders during World War II, and the Ukrainian government raised the prospect of joining NATO as it seeks help to repel what it calls an outright Russian military invasion.
In a statement published on the Kremlin's website, Putin urged the separatists to release Ukrainian soldiers trapped since Monday in the southeastern town of Ilyovaisk. The double-edged statement — couched as a humanitarian gesture but perhaps aimed at helping the rebels consolidate control — was made a day after the government in Kiev said Russian soldiers, tanks and heavy artillery had begun rolling into the region to help the separatists reverse recent Ukrainian military gains.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Ukraine may seek to join NATO, announcing the submission of a bill to parliament that would repeal the country's “non-bloc status,” the Interfax news agency reported.
Col. Andriy Lysenko, Ukrainian military spokesman, told reporters that Russia continues to send troops and materiel across the border. The force includes tanks bearing inscriptions such as “We are going to Kiev,” he said.
“I assure you that on our shells, we won't have any messages like ‘to Moscow' or ‘on to Moscow,' ” Lysenko said. “We are not aggressors. We're just trying to liberate Ukrainian lands.”
Lysenko said the Ukrainian army, after retreating from the southeastern town of Novoazovsk, was ready to defend the port city of Mariupol, about 28 miles farther west on the Sea of Azov.
Putin did not answer accusations by the Ukrainian government and the West about Russia's military presence in southeastern Ukraine.
Instead, he praised the separatists as “insurgents” who had undermined “Kiev's military operation, which threatened lives of the residents of Donbas and has already led to a colossal death toll among civilians” — a reference to the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donets Basin, or Donbas, whose unofficial capital is rebel-held Donetsk.
Ukraine's military responded quickly, saying Putin's call for an exit corridor for encircled Ukrainian troops showed that the separatists are “led and controlled directly from the Kremlin.”
Separatists said they would comply with the Kremlin's request, but it was unclear whether Kiev would accept the offer.
At a youth forum, Putin said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had agreed to a prisoner swap that would include sending 10 captured Russian paratroopers back to Russia.
An advocacy group called Soldiers' Mothers has been pressing Russian authorities for answers on the fate of troops believed to be fighting in Ukraine. Russia responded by putting the Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg on a government list of foreign agents.
In the same appearance, Putin said the recent Ukrainian offensive against pro-Russia rebels reminded him of “the events of the Second World War, when the Nazi occupiers, the troops, surrounded our cities — for example, Leningrad — and point-blank shot at these settlements and their inhabitants.” He added: “It's awful. It's a disaster.”
Putin said Ukraine should not fear federalization, asserting that Russia itself would be moving further in that direction, possibly by shifting some central government authorities to Siberia. That declaration was made barely two weeks after activists calling for more federalism in Siberia were detained and protests on the subject were banned.
However, Russia would not “meddle” with Ukraine's internal affairs, Putin added.
U.S. officials said privately that they consider the Russian show of military force this week tantamount to an invasion. Speaking at a news conference, President Obama did not use the term but said it was clear the uprising in eastern Ukraine was not “homegrown.”
“The separatists are backed, trained, armed, financed by Russia,” he said.