LAKE SELIGER, Russia/KIEV: Ukraine called Friday for full membership of NATO, its strongest plea yet for Western military help, after accusing Russia of sending in the armored columns that have driven back its forces on behalf of pro-Moscow rebels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, defiant as ever, compared Kiev’s drive to regain control of its rebellious eastern cities to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II. He announced that rebels had succeeded in halting it, and proposed that they now permit surrounded Ukrainian troops to retreat.
Speaking to young people at a summer camp, Putin told his countrymen they must be “ready to repel any aggression toward Russia.” He described Ukrainians and Russians as “practically one people,” language that Ukrainians say dismisses the very existence of their thousand-year-old nation.
The past 72 hours have seen pro-Russian rebels suddenly open a new front and push Ukrainian troops out of a key town in strategic coastal territory along the Sea of Azov. Kiev and Western countries say the reversal was the result of the arrival of armored columns of Russian troops, sent by Putin to prop up a rebellion that would otherwise have been near collapse.
Rebels said they would accept Putin’s proposal to allow Kiev forces, who they say are surrounded, to retreat, provided the government forces handed over weapons and armor.
Full Ukrainian membership of NATO, complete with the protection of a mutual defense pact with the United States, is still an unlikely prospect. But by announcing it is now seeking to join the alliance, Kiev has put more pressure on the West to find ways to protect it.
NATO holds a summit next week in Wales.
NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he respected Ukraine’s right to seek alliances.
“Despite Moscow’s hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border into eastern and southeastern Ukraine,” Rasmussen said. “This is not an isolated action, but part of a dangerous pattern over many months to destabilize Ukraine as a sovereign nation.”
Kiev said it was rallying to defend the port of Mariupol, the next big city in the path of the pro-Russian advance in the southeast.
“Fortifications are being built. Local people are coming out to help our troops, to stop the city being taken. We are ready to repel any offensive on Mariupol,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.
So far, the West has made clear it is not prepared to fight to protect Ukraine but is instead relying on economic sanctions, first imposed after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March, and tightened several times since.
But those sanctions seem to have done little to deter Putin, leaving Western politicians to seek tougher measures without crippling their own economies, particularly in Europe, which relies on Russian energy exports.
European foreign ministers met Friday in Milan ahead of a weekend EU summit. They made clear that the bloc would discuss further economic sanctions against Moscow. Some said that was no longer sufficient, and other measures to help Kiev should be discussed.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said countries that had tried so far to mediate now needed to explain “what their ideas [are] to stop President Putin and save Ukraine as she is.” Sweden’s Carl Bildt said: “Sanctions alone are not enough: he [Putin] is prepared to sacrifice his own people.”
Moscow still publicly denies its forces are fighting to support pro-Russian rebels who have declared independence in two provinces of eastern Ukraine. But the rebels themselves have said thousands of Russian troops have fought on their behalf while “on leave.”
NATO has issued satellite photos of what it says is artillery fielded by more than 1,000 Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. Kiev has released interviews with captured Russian troops. Reuters has seen an armored column of Russian troops on the Russian side of the frontier, showing signs of having recently returned from battle, with no insignia on their uniforms. Members of an official Russian human rights body say as many as 100 Russian soldiers died in a single battle in Ukraine in August.
Putin’s lengthy public appearance on Friday appeared to be an acknowledgment that the war has reached a turning point, potentially requiring greater Russian sacrifice.
Putin answered questions from young supporters, some of whom waved banners bearing his face, at a pro-Kremlin youth camp on the shores of a lake.
Wearing a grey sweater and light blue jeans, he looked relaxed, but his tone grew intense while he spoke about Russia’s military might, reminding the crowd that Russia was a strong nuclear power.
“Russia’s partners ... should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” Putin said.