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Ukraine accuses Russian forces of invasion

August 28, 2014 at 6:06 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The crisis in Ukraine intensified today as the government in Kiev accused Russia of an outright invasion.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK, Prime Minister, Ukraine: We can confirm that Russian military boots are on Ukrainian ground.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The cries of invasion came from Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and President Petro Poroshenko, who announced Russian forces have entered Ukraine.

PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO, Ukrainian (through interpretor): Amateur mercenaries, along with employed Russian servicemen, are trying to organize a counteroffensive against positions of our armed forces.  Without any doubts, the situation is extraordinarily difficult, but it is controllable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Ukrainians charged, Russian soldiers and armor are helping rebels open a new front in the southeast.  Kiev confirmed the rebels have captured the town on Novoazovsk on the Azov Sea, leaving the port city of Mariupol suddenly vulnerable to attack.

Ukraine’s government said images from Novoazovsk showed a Russian tank on the streets.  And NATO released its own satellite images showing Russian self-propelled artillery units on Ukrainian roads.  The alliance said well over 1,000 Russian troops have crossed the border and warned of more to come.

BRIG. GEN. NICO TAK, NATO:  These latest images provides concrete examples of Russian activity inside Ukraine, but they are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the overall scope of Russian troop and weapons movements.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Earlier this week, Ukraine had released a video showing what it said were Russian servicemen captured on its territory.  And, today, the rebel prime minister acknowledged several thousand Russians are fighting with the rebels on their own time.

ALEKSANDR ZAKHARCHENKO, Prime Minister, Donetsk People’s Republic (through interpretor): Among volunteers from Russia, there have always been many retired military servicemen.  There are also currently serving soldiers among us who preferred to spend their vacations not on sea beaches, but among us, among brothers fighting for their freedom.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The spike in tensions prompted angry words at the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power blasted previous Russian denials of complicity.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the UN: At every step, Russia has come before this council to say everything except the truth.  It has manipulated, it has obfuscated, it has outright lied.  So we have learned to measure Russia by its actions and not by its words.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In turn, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin dismissed the accusations, without directly denying anything.

VITALY CHURKIN, UN Ambassador, Russia (through interpretor): Everyone knows that there are Russian volunteers in eastern parts of Ukraine.  No one is hiding that.  We’d like to see similar transparency shown by other countries.  I would suggest that we send a message to Washington.  Stop interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states.  Stop trying to undermine a regime that you don’t like.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Later, President Obama discouraged talk of a U.S. military option.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem.  What we’re doing is to mobilize the international community to apply pressure on Russia.  But I think it is very important to recognize that a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president argued that pressure from existing and possibly new sanctions will take an increasing toll on Russia, even if it’s not apparent now.

For more on what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine, I’m joined by Andrew Kramer of The New York Times.  He joins us from Donetsk.

So, Andrew, you were visiting a town where the Russian troops were streaming in.  Describe that scene to us.

ANDREW KRAMER, The New York Times: Yes, this was in the town of Novoazovsk on the Azov Sea.  And we were standing on the outside of the town speaking with Ukrainian soldiers who were retreating.

These soldiers were convinced they were fighting the Russians.  At least many of them were.  We didn’t see the troops coming in, but they were said to have come across the border from Russia into Ukraine.  It was a very chaotic scene.  And, in fact, a day later, that town was seized by the pro-Russian forces.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You also spoke of locals in that area.  What did they think about what’s happening?

ANDREW KRAMER: Well, people here who support the Russian cause are obviously cheered by this development.  The rebel organization had been on its last legs militarily in recent weeks.

The Ukrainian army was closing in on towns of Donetsk and Luhansk.  And now there’s been a reversal of fortunes, a turning of the tide here.  The separatists and, according to Ukrainian government, with the support of Russia, has moved across the Russian border and has now opened a new front in the south along the seashore with the cities of Novoazovsk and Mariupol as the objectives.

Now, a rebel commander I spoke with said the intention is to form a defensive triangle out of these two cities and Donetsk and hopefully force the Ukrainian government into settlement talks on more favorable terms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s the impact on the cities that you’re — you’re in Donetsk now.  But what’s the impact there on what’s happening in these other towns?

ANDREW KRAMER: For now, in Donetsk, little has changed.  We had an artillery barrage come into town today that killed two people, hitting residential areas.  The Ukrainian government is keeping up its pressure on Donetsk.

The assumption is that forces will be diverted from here to the south to address this new risk, this new push by the pro-Russians and possibly with support of Russian supporters coming in across the border.  That’s the hope at least of the separatists living in this town.  It’s a setback for the Ukrainians who are hoping to end this war quickly and on their terms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Can you feel a level of tension increasing or decreasing from the events in the past week?

ANDREW KRAMER: The tension is certainly increasing, particularly in the towns and villages affected.

We drove along a 75-mile stretch of highway from here in Donetsk to the area where the battle is taking place and it was almost wholly deserted.  You would see only a few cars carrying refugees, burned-out military vehicles, and people who were very concerned, obviously, about this new development and the violence which is coming to their communities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there a cognition of what’s happening and how the rest of the world is paying attention?  Do the people in Ukraine, the ones that you speak with, care about what’s happening at NATO or whether this is called an invasion or an incursion?

ANDREW KRAMER: People in the areas that have been shelled are mostly concerned about everyday concerns, like fetching water and food and staying out of the way of danger.

There is certainly, among the rebels, a larger understanding of the context of this war and this conflict.  Ukraine has now said — the president of Ukraine has said today that Russia invaded.  NATO was more cautious, saying that Russia had carried out an incursion into Ukraine.  In any case, what’s clearly happening here is a cross-border military action in Europe, and the consequences are very unpredictable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Andrew Kramer of The New York Times joining us from Donetsk, thanks so much.

ANDREW KRAMER: Thank you.