NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine — Backed by Russian troops and weaponry, hundreds of Ukrainian rebel militiamen mobilized Friday in Novoazovsk, vacated by the Ukrainian military two days ago, and began to push toward the strategic seaport of Mariupol 27 miles away. The leader of the rebels called the advance a new effort to wrest control of a wide swath of coastal territory from the central government.
The militiamen flew the flag of Novorossiya, or “New Russia,” a reference to Russia’s historical claims over the southeastern area of Ukraine that encompasses the rebellious Donetsk and Luhansk regions under siege by the Ukrainian army, as well as vast territories elsewhere in southern Ukraine.
Their thrust toward Mariupol, a port on the Sea of Azov, was the most prominent evidence that the insurgency in eastern Ukraine bordering Russia has been given a new infusion of vitality by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And it came as Putin directly addressed the insurgents for the first time in a message posted on his website titled “The President of Russia Vladimir Putin Addresses the Novorossiya Militia,” using the reference to an area broader than the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. He congratulated the rebels, saying they had “achieved a major success in intercepting Kiev’s military operation.”
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The developments offered new insights into the strategy of Putin, who has supported the rebels in defiance of the United States and its Western allies as part of a broader effort to keep Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of influence.
The rebel advance along the southeast coast suggested Putin may be laying the basis for a more independent eastern Ukraine beyond the borders of Luhansk and Donetsk, or for creating an overland route from Russia to Crimea, the southern Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed five months ago.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of increasingly brazen military aggression, sending troops, tanks and other weapons across the border to support the rebels. The Kremlin has denied the accusations and asserted that any Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine are volunteers on vacation.
A takeover of Mariupol, an industrial city of 500,000, would go a long way toward helping the separatists gain control over land that would connect Russia to Crimea, along a path starting here at this border town.
Also Friday, Putin reminded the world that he presides over a nuclear-armed state.
“It’s best not to mess with us,” he said, likening the separatists’ battle with Ukrainian army forces to Soviet citizens’ resistance during the German Nazi siege of Leningrad.
“Thank God, I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers,” Putin said during a visit to a Kremlin-sponsored youth camp, clearly aiming to marshal public support for a military campaign that has brought international isolation and increasingly stringent economic sanctions.
The U.N. on Friday reported that the death toll in Ukraine as of Wednesday had risen to at least 2,593 since fighting between separatists and government troops escalated in mid-April. The report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights blamed all parties in the conflict for inflicting “intolerable hardships” on civilians, who are being killed at a rate of 36 a day.
State Department officials said this week that the Russian military was sending troops 30 miles into Ukraine, while concealing that fact from them and their families. Also undisclosed, officials said, was the presence in St. Petersburg hospitals of soldiers wounded in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, along a road littered with felled tree limbs from tank battles, pro-Russia soldiers waved journalists past checkpoints and behind their lines in Novoazovsk for the first time Friday, offering a glimpse at the composition of their weaponry and the insignia on uniforms, which were all the flag of Novorossiya.
The military commandant of the town, who offered only his nickname, Svet, said the soldiers were with the army of Novorossiya, rather than either of the main separatist groups, the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.
The political wing of the armed group that opened the new front here, he said, was the parliament of Novorossiya, formed in June with representatives from Luhansk and Donetsk but open to any of the eight Ukrainian provinces claimed as Novorossiya.
“Now we are fighting for all of southeastern Ukraine, for Novorossiya, which was historically a Russian province,” said Svet, interviewed outside an auto-repair shop where he had set up a command post.
Scrambling to counter Russia and align itself even more with the West, the Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said Friday that a bill had been introduced in parliament to cancel Ukraine’s status as a nonaligned country and to “restore its aspirations to become a NATO member.”
“This law also reaffirms the main political goal of Ukraine — to become a member of the European Union,” Yatsenyuk said on his Facebook page.
NATO leaders are to meet in Wales next week, and Rasmussen said the alliance would assure the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, of NATO’s “unwavering support for Ukraine.”
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.