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Putin toughens stance as rebels seize key port city

Troops identifying themselves as members of the New Russia Militia were encamped Friday in a Ukrainian border town.

Mauricio Lima/New York Times

Troops identifying themselves as members of the New Russia Militia were encamped Friday in a Ukrainian border town.

MOSCOW — As Russian-backed rebels entrenched themselves in a newly captured and strategically located town in southeast Ukraine on Friday, President Vladimir Putin bluntly strengthened Moscow’s hard-line position that the government in Kiev must be compelled to negotiate regional autonomy.

Abandoning his more frequent conciliatory stance, Putin issued a rare, open, congratulatory message to the insurgents. They had “achieved a major success in intercepting Kiev’s military operation,” he said on his website.

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Behind the message, and the wider military operation, analysts saw several Kremlin goals. Most important, they said, is that Putin wants to force terms, first laid down in March, built around political changes in Ukraine that would weaken central government authority and ensure that the country cannot escape Moscow’s orbit — and certainly never join NATO or other important Western alliances. Second, but perhaps more urgent, Russia wanted to take the pressure off the increasingly beleaguered rebel forces in Luhansk and Donetsk, which were at risk of capture by government forces, hence robbing Moscow of important leverage.

Third, there was the possibility that Russia was trying to establish a land route to Crimea, the southern Ukrainian peninsula seized in March. Analysts noted, though, that such a possibility would mean a notable shift in policy — never easy to assess given the opaque statements from the Kremlin.

“Russia in the end would like negotiations, but negotiations that would conclude with serious concessions from Ukraine,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

Given that Ukraine has shown no willingness to negotiate, the Kremlin raised the pressure by increasing its support for the breakaway republics in southeastern Ukraine, he said.

“Russia is investing very large resources into these republics, resources of various kinds, with the understanding that Ukraine will have to yield and come to an agreement with Russia on Russia’s terms,” Makarkin said.

Putin, in separate remarks at a nationally televised question-and-answer session with student supporters at a resort northeast of Moscow, accused Ukraine of stalling for time, hoping to control the rebels rather than talk to them.

“We need to make the Ukrainian authorities start negotiations of real substance,” he said, with the main priority to guarantee the rights of people in the southeastern Donbass region bordering Russia. “But the problem is that they don’t really want to talk.”

Instead, Putin said, “The Ukrainian Army has surrounded small towns and big cities and is firing directly at residential areas in order to destroy infrastructure and crush the will to resist.”

Russian troops and weaponry were creating momentum for a counteroffensive along a significant new front that threatened Mariupol, a key southeastern seaport and one of the region’s biggest cities, with nearly half a million residents.

In the town of Novoazovsk, Ukrainian militiamen manned checkpoints. But evidence of a Russian presence was abundant, including unmarked Russian military vehicles with no license plates. A soldier on a truck greeted journalists by shouting in English: “Back in the USSR!”

A cashier at a Novoazovsk grocery store said Russian soldiers had purchased sausages and cigarettes. Asked how she knew they were Russian, the cashier, who identified herself as Olga, snapped: “You think I’ve only lived one day?”

The military commandant of the town, who offered only his nickname, Svet, said the soldiers there were with the Army of Novorossiya, rather than either of the main separatist groups, the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.

The militiamen flew the flag of “Novorossiya” or New Russia, a reference to Russia’s historical claims over the area in southeast Ukraine that encompasses the rebellious Donetsk and Luhansk regions along with much of southern Ukraine.

In his statement on the Kremlin website, Putin also referred to the Novorossiya Militia, pointedly using the reference to the broader area.

“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 he had set up as a command post. “We plan to take Mariupol.”

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of increasingly brazen military aggression, sending troops, tanks, and other weapons across the border to support the Ukraine rebels. The Kremlin has denied the accusations and a top rebel leader asserted that any Russian active-duty soldiers fighting in Ukraine are volunteers on vacation.

A takeover of Mariupol would go a long way toward helping the separatists gain control over land that would connect Russia to Crimea. Russia lacks a land link to the peninsula, and the ferry route farther south has become a major bottleneck.

But analysts said that would mean occupying a lot of Ukrainian territory where there is little pro-Russian sentiment, possibly forcing a costly, bloody occupation of the type Putin has thus far sought to avoid.

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