Russian President Vladimir Putin denied Friday that the Kremlin had sent troops and tanks into eastern Ukraine and countered threats of increased Western sanctions with the advice that it is "best not to mess with us."
Putin likened the five-month-old battle between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine to the World War II siege of Leningrad by invading Nazi troops. He also reminded the outside world that has condemned his incursions into Ukraine that Russia is "one of the leading nuclear powers."
But his defiant pose during a visit to a Kremlin-sponsored youth camp near Moscow, which was broadcast on state-run television, coincided with a proposed "humanitarian" appeal to the pro-Russia separatists to allow Ukrainian troops encircled in the Donetsk region to evacuate to government-held territory to the west.
The appeal, which the Kremlin-allied separatists agreed to on condition the Ukrainian troops surrender their weapons, was likely intended to facilitate a prisoner swap, as the Ukrainian side earlier this week took 10 Russian paratroopers captive after they crossed the border with one of several armored convoys that have entered Ukraine in the last two weeks.
In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said Ukraine would pursue full membership in NATO once a new parliament is seated following elections set for Oct. 26. President Petro Poroshenko last week dissolved the Supreme Council that had become dysfunctional after the overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovich, whose Party of Regions deputies dominated the legislature chosen in 2012.
Ukraine had agreed to remain nonaligned after the breakup of the Soviet Union in exchange for guarantees from Russia that its security and territorial integrity would be respected. But after Yanukovich was toppled in February after a three-month rebellion over his scuttling of a European Union trade deal, Russian troops invaded Ukraine's Crimea region and Putin annexed it in mid-March, spurring the separatist actions in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen acknowledged Ukraine's right to seek membership in the Western military alliance without expressing support or opposition to a Ukrainian bid - a move Putin would clearly regard as a threat to his authority in the former Soviet region. But the NATO chief condemned Russia's armored incursion into Ukrainian territory, satellite images of which the alliance released on Thursday.
“This is a blatant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. It defies all diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution,” Rasmussen said.
"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."
He warned Russia that its military involvement on its neighbor's territory "can only deepen the crisis in the region, which Russia itself has created and has continued to fuel."
Foreign ministers of the 28-nation European Union met in Milan, Italy, on Friday and heard appeals from some member nations for tougher sanctions against Russia to punish its latest aggression against Ukraine.
“We are now in the midst of the second Russian invasion of Ukraine within a year,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea in March. Citing the reported intrusion of Russian tanks and troops and the seizure of Novoazovsk this week, Bildt said the European alliance must "call a spade a spade.”
At the youth camp on the shores of Lake Seliger, northwest of Moscow, Putin was filmed chatting with young Russians about the need to be "ready to repel any aggression towards Russia."
Putin denied that Russia was involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine that has taken 2,600 lives since April, calling Ukrainians and Russians "one people."
His visit to the youth camp came a day after Russian tanks and troops thundered into eastern Ukraine along the Sea of Azov, opening a new front for the embattled separatists who were on the verge of losing their last two strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk to resurgent Ukrainian government forces.
In what sounded like a warning to the West against imposing further sanctions on Russia, Putin reminded the outside world that Russia is nuclear-armed and ready to defend itself.
"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," he said.
Alluding to Western countries, Putin added that "Russia's partners ... should understand it's best not to mess with us."
He compared the Ukrainian government's offensive to retake territory seized by pro-Russia separatists to the 2 1/2-year siege of Leningrad, where as many as a million people died, most of hunger and disease. Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, is Putin's hometown and his older brother died during the strangling Nazi encirclement, which remains a powerful symbol of Russian defiance.
Earlier Friday, Putin appealed to the separatists in eastern Ukraine to open a "humanitarian corridor" for trapped Ukrainian fighters to evacuate -- a gesture likely intended by Putin to don the mantle of peacemaker. An unknown number of Ukrainian volunteer fighters have reportedly been surrounded by separatists in the town of Ilovaisk, in the Donetsk region, for more than a week.
Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said his forces would comply with Putin’s request on condition that Ukrainian troops surrender their weapons.
Protesters in Kiev have been rallying outside of the presidential offices and the Defense Ministry demanding action to rescue the surrounded fighters.
Special correspondent Gorst reported from Moscow and Times staff writer Williams from Los Angeles.
©2014 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by MCT Information Services.