MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday hailed pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine as insurgents battling an army that he likened 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 early Friday, Putin also 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 – 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.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Friday that 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.
Ukrainian military spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko 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 coastal town of Novoazovsk, was ready to defend the key 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 that Putin’s call for an exit corridor for encircled Ukrainian troops showed that the separatists are led and controlled directly from the Kremlin.
Pro-Russian separatists said they would comply with the Kremlin’s request, but it was unclear whether Kiev would accept the offer.
At a youth forum later Friday, 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.
U.S. officials said privately Thursday that they consider the Russian show of military force this week tantamount to an invasion.
Speaking at a news conference, President Barack 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.