MOSCOW, Russia — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Thursday accused Russia of deploying its troops in southeastern Ukraine to support a counteroffensive by separatist rebels that has expanded the zone of fighting and stirred fears of a deepening conflict.
In a statement, Poroshenko said, “Russian troops were actually brought into Ukraine,” a claim echoed in recent days by other top Ukrainian officials who have said Russia has provided crucial military support to insurgents.
The allegation came after the Moscow-backed rebels, allegedly with Russian help, seized a strategic town on the Black Sea coast amid an apparent push to create a new southern front.
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council reported on Thursday that coastal Novoazovsk and surrounding towns — which had been under attack for two days — had fallen to “Russian soldiers,” and that Ukrainian forces had pulled back to Mariupol, a key port city about 25 miles west of the Russian border, where they are fortifying defenses.
Despite regular denials from the Kremlin that it has aided Ukraine’s insurgency, the fact that rebels have staged such a maneuver — especially amid the Ukrainian military’s aggressive advance in recent weeks — suggests they’ve enjoyed considerable external support.
Their current strategy in taking Novoazovsk, as well as reportedly attacking a region just southeast of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, appears aimed at diverting Ukrainian forces from their near-encirclement of that city and surrounding towns, which have seen fierce fighting in recent days.
The rebel leadership itself has made few efforts to hide what it’s claimed has been crucial support from Russian volunteers.
The self-declared separatist “prime minister,” Alexander Zakharchenko, said Thursday that between 3,000 and 4,000 Russians are fighting alongside the rebels — some of them active duty Russian soldiers on leave.
“There are active soldiers fighting among us who preferred to spend their vacation not on the beach, but with us, among their brothers, who are fighting for their freedom,” he told the state-run television network Russia 24.
In a later interview with Reuters, Zakharchenko added that his forces are preparing to storm Mariupol, which had been freed from rebel occupation in June and largely calm ever since.
Conquering that city would mean potentially opening up a key transport route north to Donetsk. It would also force the Ukrainian military to further spread its thin and under-equipped lines.
The rebel onslaught comes days after Ukrainian security officials captured 10 Russian paratroopers who later testified on camera that they were members of a Russian military unit and had been sent into Ukraine in unmarked vehicles.
Both Russian defense officials and President Vladimir Putin himself confirmed the soldiers had entered Ukrainian territory, but said they had ended up there by mistake after getting lost.
A top NATO official, meanwhile, estimated on Thursday that more than 1,000 Russian troops are active in Ukraine. The military alliance also released photos it said were of Russian units within its neighbor’s borders.
The developments are placing ever more pressure on the Kremlin to admit its alleged role in the conflict since April, after suspiciously well-armed gunmen seized administrative buildings across eastern Ukraine.
Observers have said Moscow has sought to maintain plausible deniability in the crisis, a fact highlighted recently by the departure from their posts of two key separatist leaders, both Muscovites with ties to Russia’s security establishment and elites.
By distancing itself from direct involvement in the crisis, the Kremlin likely hopes to avoid further rounds of Western sanctions, the most recent of which had targeted key sectors such as the defense and energy industries.
But Thursday’s allegations will almost certainly make that deniability harder to keep up, especially in light of the growing evidence at home of Russia’s military involvement in the war next door.
For example, two members of the Kremlin’s own human rights council issued an appeal earlier this week for Russia’s Investigative Committee to look into the mysterious recent deaths of nine soldiers near a training facility in the southern Russian region of Rostov, which borders Ukraine.
Meanwhile, reports in the independent Russian press in recent days have focused on the deaths of Russian paratroopers, believed by critics of the government to have died in Ukraine but who were apparently buried in secret. When reporters from the TV Rain television network attempted to visit the cemetery, they were attacked by unidentified thugs and forced away from the area.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday cautioned against jumping to conclusions and told reporters that information regarding the burials “is being verified.”
Some observers suggest the increasingly implausible denials from the Kremlin may prove dangerous.
An editorial in the influential Vedomosti business daily likened the recent chain of events to similar dark moments during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and during Russia’s attempt in the 1990s to quell a separatist rebellion in Chechnya.
Soviet officials were tight-lipped about their true involvement in Afghanistan and preferred to quietly bury their soldiers until the mid-‘80s, the editorial said. In the ‘90s, shortly before a full-blown war broke out, Russian contract soldiers were used to support Chechnya’s homegrown anti-separatist forces, but were later virtually disowned by top officials after being killed or captured there.
“In both cases,” the editorial read, “the war and attempts to conceal information about the casualties among their own soldiers gave way to the development of a crisis in society and the collapse of political support for the authorities.”