Putin hails Ukraine separatists
The soldiers' plight, and their apparent dispatch into battle with little training and inadequate equipment, has sparked scorn across Ukraine in recent days. Volunteer commanders venting on Facebook have denounced what they say is the government's neglect, and protesters have gathered in the capital, Kiev, chanting, "Weapons for patriots."
The episode is significant because it exposes the weakness of Ukraine's armed forces - the result of years of neglect - as the country pivots from a civil conflict to face a far more formidable foe, its neighbor to the east.
Russian President Vladimir Putin focused international attention on the trapped soldiers Friday by calling in a statement for a protected route to allow them to retreat, even as evidence mounted of a broad incursion into Ukraine by Russian troops and military vehicles.
The appeal - couched as a humanitarian gesture, but perhaps aimed at helping the rebels consolidate control - came 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.
Putin said the recent Ukrainian offensive against pro-Russian 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."
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Friday that Ukraine might 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.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian military, Col. Andriy Lysenko, told reporters that Russia continued to send troops and materiel across the border, including tanks bearing menacing inscriptions such as "We are going to Kiev."
By Friday evening, Lysenko said, no corridor had materialized near Ilyovaisk, and the spokesman for one of the largest militia battalions said the fighters had come under heavy fire throughout the day as they tried to break through a double ring of rebels. The day's death toll was not known.
"Fights are being conducted. There are dead people. There are wounded. But there is hope," said Vasilisa Trofimovich, the battalion spokesman.
One volunteer soldier, who gave his name only as Vladimir for safety reasons, said he and other members of his unit had been hunkered down in a basement, rationing the bullets for their aging assault rifles and killing farm chickens to survive. Meanwhile, he said, they were being attacked from all sides by separatists and Russians armed with sophisticated guns and tanks.
"For a while, I thought they wouldn't abandon us," he said of Ukraine's government, speaking by telephone. "But now I understand what's really going on."
The battalions were launched in spring after the onset of tensions between Russian-backed separatists, largely based in the east, and Ukrainians who want the country to ally itself with Europe and the West.
As fighting began, citizens scrambled to defend the country against the separatist uprising after it became apparent that the armed forces had been enfeebled by years of cost-cutting and neglect. A text-message campaign seeking funds for military defense brought in millions.
At the same time, former protesters who had helped oust a president in February hungered to join the fight. The national government established volunteer battalions as a way to help would-be fighters get to the front under some form of government auspices. More than 7,000 volunteer soldiers now serve in 10 battalions under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. By contrast, rebel forces say they have about 12,000 volunteer soldiers.
One former small-business owner from the southeastern city of Donetsk, who said he had never picked up a gun, said he joined up to fight after his city descended into chaos and he was forced to close his business. "I realized it had to be me who was going to defend my city," said the businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
He found himself in a one-month training course with lawyers, doctors, and other professionals. At the end of training, he was given a Soviet-era Kalashnikov assault rifle. But the snipers in his unit fared worse: They left training with cartridges that dated to World War II.
The volunteers were told their role was to secure cities in the wake of the country's regular armed forces, but they quickly realized they were going to be involved in full-scale combat.
A spokesman for the military's National Security and Defense Council, Bogdan Voron, rejected the idea that the volunteer brigades were unprepared. "A lot of these volunteers had [mandatory] military service. They are policemen, former servicemen."