Russian armored vehicles thundered into southern Ukraine and unleashed an offensive against the strategic town of Novoazovsk as the 5-month-old separatist battle opened a new front, officials in Kiev said Wednesday.
Novoazovsk lies a few miles west of the border with Russia on a road that leads to Mariupol, a vital Ukrainian shipping terminus on the Sea of Azov. From there, the road eventually connects with the Russian military installations on the Crimean peninsula, which Russia invaded in February and annexed a month later.
The seaside corridor would also provide Russia and its eastern Ukrainian proxies control of the oil and gas fields that Russian energy giant Gazprom operates in the Sea of Azov, as well as military hardware production in the Zaporizhia region and food grown and processed in Kherson, the Ukrainian mainland's gateway to Crimea.
"The city of Novoazovsk is under fire from both Russia and occupied spots on Ukrainian territory," Col. Andriy Lysenko of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council told journalists at his daily briefing in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
Ukrainian government forces control the roads leading from the separatist-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east, which suggests that the tanks, armored personnel carriers and rocket launchers spotted on the road into Novoazovsk entered Ukraine from Russia rather than separatist-held areas. Russia maintains a major military installation at Taganrog, just across the Ukrainian border on the eastern end of the inland sea.
Reports from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization also said Russia was infusing military hardware and fighters into the southern corridor, which, if conquered, would give Russia a land bridge from Taganrog to Crimea.
"Regular Russian units are operating in eastern Ukraine" as well as the local separatists, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told lawmakers in Warsaw, attributing the information to Polish intelligence services and NATO.
The Obama administration also expressed concern about the intelligence and media reports of armor and fighters flooding into Ukraine from Russia.
"These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.
The reported artillery attacks on Novoazovsk followed a summit Tuesday in Minsk, Belarus, where Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met for the first time since the Kiev leader's June 7 inauguration. Both said they saw "positive" results from the meeting with other regional leaders, primarily focused on trade. However, no breakthroughs were reported on the Ukraine conflict, which has taken more than 2,000 lives since April.
Poroshenko told the summit attendees that Russia must respect Ukraine's border and stop sending arms and mercenaries to prop up the separatists. Putin told the forum that the war would drag on until Kiev realized it couldn't achieve a military victory.
Putin declined to take part in peace talks over the Ukraine crisis, repeating his claim that Russia wasn't involved. He said ending the bloodshed was "Ukraine's business."
In Kiev, Lysenko said the government was still in control in Novoazovsk. He also said that industry and transport were functioning normally in Mariupol, a steel-making city and key outlet to the Black and Mediterranean seas for eastern Ukraine.
Fighting along the new Sea of Azov front line inflicted heavy casualties, according to Lysenko, who said 225 enemy fighters had been killed in the previous 24 hours, along with a loss of 13 government troops. He also said three Russian military helicopters had violated Ukrainian airspace over the Kherson region, which borders Russian-occupied Crimea.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry reported fresh shelling and rocket fire on the Donetsk international airport, which remains in government hands but has been closed since mid-May because of the intense fighting around the city, which was home to 1 million residents before the conflict. Many people have fled.
Ukraine's Security Service said Tuesday that its forces had intercepted a convoy of tanks coming across the Russian border toward Novoazovsk a day earlier and captured 10 Russian paratroopers accompanying the column.
NATO has been reporting military equipment and troops moving into Ukraine from Russia for the last two weeks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday said he had no information on the reported movements.