Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

For now, a tense quiet in Ukraine’s east

While residents say they haven’t seen Russian troops cross into Novoazovsk, Ukrainian separatists continue to press

NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine — This small city perched high on an embankment of the shallow waters of the Azov Sea is, at the best of times, fairly forgettable.

The two-story apartment blocks and small private homes look identical to those in just about every other city across the former Soviet Union. The central square is so small that it would be easy to miss, except for the World War II fighter jet propped up on a concrete stand to commemorate the city’s war heroes.

But over the weekend, Novoazovsk and its population of roughly 17,000 were front-page news after Ukraine and NATO said Moscow sent at least 1,000 troops and military equipment across the border and into the city.

Kiev called Russia’s troop advance an invasion and said it confirmed what Ukraine, backed by the United States and other Western powers, has been claiming since April — that the Kremlin is supporting the armed separatist rebellion in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

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But if Russian troops crossed the border on Friday, there was no sign of them on Sunday. Instead, dozens of rebel fighters and tanks from the self-declared Novorossiya Army have taken up position around the city, headquartering themselves at the local tire shop at the edge of town.

To some in this quiet little corner of Ukraine, the rebels’ sudden appearance was as mysterious as the accusations about the Russian troops they never saw.

“We don’t know who these guys are, but of course, it’s the last thing we wanted to see after trying to get away from the fighting in Donetsk,” said Valentina Marchuk, 30, who arrived a month ago to find peace and normality in this seaside town with her aging parents.

She said she lived with her parents in a residential area near the Donetsk airport. On May 26 her neighborhood was caught in the middle of a bloody turning-point battle between the rebels and the Ukrainian army. Dozens were killed, and the airport was destroyed.

“We were just starting to get comfortable here and breath normally, when this happened,” Marchuk said as she walked along the city’s embankment park.  

Locals said that what exactly happened to make Novoazovsk headline news remains unclear, but military experts believe the Russian troops and military hardware may have moved north into rebel-held territory shortly after crossing the border. Some said they saw tanks and other military vehicles stationed about 10 miles outside the city, while others said they saw “green men” such as the ones who appeared in the Crimean Peninsula in late February.

Then, as now, Russia denied that it sent its military into Ukrainian territory.

In March, Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum vote conducted as armed men guarded the streets of the Crimea. Kiev and most of the international community has not recognized Russia’s annexation, but in April, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly confirmed that the “green men” of Crimea were in fact Russian soldiers.

Some analysts fear the reappearance of Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian conflict could indicate that Putin seeks to create a frozen conflict in Ukraine that could destabilize the country and prevent it from tilting toward the European Union.

“Russia’s ultimate aim is to alleviate pressure on separatist fighters in order to prolong this conflict indefinitely, which would result in further tragedy for the people of eastern Ukraine,” NATO’s Brig. Gen. Nico Tak said last week.

The idea that Russia has sent in more backup for the rebel movement put eastern Ukraine in panic mode. In nearby Mariupol, Ukraine’s most substantial port on the Azov Sea, residents began hastily preparing for what they fear is an imminent attack by the rebels.

Hundreds of volunteers began digging trenches along the city limits on Friday and Saturday, while the Ukrainian military reinforced checkpoints, particularly on the road leading east to Novoazovsk, some 25 miles away. Massive concrete tetrapods set up in the road forced cars to zigzag into the city and were intended to stop rebel tanks from entering.

Across the city, a volunteer group called United Mariupol organized free courses on how to respond with basic first aid if the city comes under heavy artillery fire, as in neighboring Donetsk and Luhansk.

Mariupol is vital for Ukraine’s access to the Azov Sea, which spills into the Black Sea to the south. Also, the city is home to a large metallurgy plant and other heavy industries. Already in this conflict, the city has changed hands several times as the eastern separatists have tried and failed to permanently occupy government buildings here and declare Mariupol part of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

On Sunday the city seemed cautiously optimistic about its ability to maintain its position as a Ukrainian city after two days of public rallies, in which several thousand people turned up dressed in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag and holding signs with slogans such as “Putin, get out of Ukraine.”

On Saturday, several hundred people formed a human chain along the road leading east out of the city as a show of solidarity against what they said was Russian aggression against Ukraine.

“We’re basically passive people, and we don’t want this war,” said Sveta, 23, a waitress at a tourist restaurant on Mariupol’s coast. When the fighting started in the northern districts of the Donetsk oblast, of which Mariupol is a part, thousands of refugees flocked to the Azov Sea area hoping to find peace. “We’re just praying that the rebels will just let us be here.”

On Sunday the conflict got a little closer to the city of Mariupol, when rebel fighters hit a Ukrainian border guard ship in the Azov Sea with a missile fired from their new location in Novoazovsk.

“I personally ordered and oversaw the operation,” said the leader of the rebel battalion now stationed in Novoazovsk. The leader goes only by his nom de guerre, Svat, the Russian word for father-in-law. He said his fighters went to the city to protect its residents from the Kiev “junta’s fascists,” in reference to government battalions.

“If they want to live in what they call Ukraine, they are welcome to leave,” said the 45-year-old former Ukrainian special forces officer from Odessa. “But this is Novorossiya, and we’re going to keep going until we’ve taken back all our historic lands, including Kiev.”

Svat denied that Russia had sent troops and equipment to support his men’s taking of Novoazovsk or any other function of his military. He had enough men and equipment to keep his army moving west, he said.

“All the equipment we’ve gotten is a result of our victories against the Ukrainian army,” he said.

To be sure, there is some support for the separatist movement in the region, known for its heavy industry and working-class values. Like their neighbors in the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, some people in Mariupol were angered by the protests that overtook Kiev this winter and eventually led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.

But many other residents remain skeptical of the separatists’ mission.

“This Novorossiya thing is absolutely absurd,” said Sergei Bonderenko, 53, a taxi driver from Mariupol. “If these guys thought Ukraine was so bad before, why didn’t they leave? Or why didn’t they do something to change things for the better instead of just complaining now?”

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