MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin denied Friday 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 Second World War 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.
'Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers'
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 Kyiv, Prime Minister Arseniy 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 armoured incursion into Ukrainian territory, satellite images of which the alliance released 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 its military involvement on its neighbour's territory "can only deepen the crisis in the region, which Russia itself has created and has continued to fuel."
Putin denied 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."
-- Los Angeles Times