NOVOKATERYNIVKA, Ukraine — The Ukrainian solders were an easy target as they launched a desperate run to safety. Pounded by a gauntlet of rocket shells, blown up in their vehicles, they died by the dozens.
In fields around the eastern Ukrainian village of Novokaterynivka, more than thirty army vehicles lay charred and pulverized into twisted piles of metal Tuesday – the result of a devastating weekend ambush by separatist forces.
The rout marked a major intensification in the separatists’ offensive in eastern Ukraine – one that the government in Kiev, NATO and the United States say has been sustained by Russia’s direct military support.
Moscow’s aggressive stance toward Ukraine has come in both words and deeds of late, fueled by attacks like those in Novokaterynivka as well as a leaked report that EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Vladimir Putin told him that Russia could take over Kiev “in two weeks” if it wished.
The separatists, after having a month of setbacks in which government troops regained territory, have been inordinately successful in the last 10 days just as columns of Russian tanks and armored vehicles have been seen crossing the border. President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders will be attending a summit in Wales on Thursday to create a rapid-response military team to counter the Russian threat.
Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, told reporters that the Russian leader’s statement on Kiev was “taken out of context and carried a completely different meaning.”
Yet on the ground, the results of much deadlier weapons of war could not be denied.
The smashed tanks, APCs and trucks were part of a massive column fleeing Saturday night after being encircled in the town of Ilovaisk, which the government was compelled to concede after weeks of bitter battles. Judging by how close together the stricken vehicles were, the incoming fire was precise and extremely intense.
“They were going to surrender and they began to bomb them,” said Novokaterynivka resident Anatoly Tyrn.
Ukrainian army personnel have been allowed to travel to Novokaterynivka and surrounding rebel-held areas to retrieve their soldiers’ bodies, a few of which still lie in the open.
Villagers and the Russian-backed rebels say the number of Ukrainian military dead was huge, although the government has maintained a tight lid on the precise figure.
Tyrn said he believed more than a hundred had died. Various rebel fighters separately gave estimates, all ranging into the dozens. AP reporters saw at least 11 bodies in the area over the last two days, although it was clear that was only a portion of the overall toll. Most of the dead were removed Monday, the rebels said.
One body was flung over an overhead high-voltage power line, apparently after his armored personnel carrier was hit by a shell. Another was quickly buried by rebels under a thin layer of dirt, but the summer heat bloated the body, pushing it up through the soil.
The turret of one tank blown several yards clear of its vehicle, landing beside Tyrn’s home.
“Only a few homes in the village have been left untouched,” he said.
As Tyrn spoke, the rural silence was broken by a controlled explosion of abandoned Ukrainian army equipment a couple of miles away.
“That’s far away,” he said, without flinching.
Uncertainty remains about whether the escaping Ukrainian troops had been offered a safe exit corridor by rebel forces. The leader of the pro-government Donbas Battalion, Semyon Semenchenko, wrote on his Facebook on Saturday morning that there was an agreement. But rebel fighters told The Associated Press a day later that the government convoy included too many military vehicles and weapons to be allowed through.
One group of Ukrainian soldiers that survived the gauntlet told the AP on Sunday that they were fired upon from all sides.
“We came out of hell,” said one, standing in a flatbed truck packed with 20 other soldiers outside the town of Starobesheve.
Rank-and-file troops have increasingly voiced exasperation at perceived government mismanagement of the war. Anatoly Babchenko, a soldier captured Sunday by the rebels who was being held in a basement cell at the Starobesheve police station, was unsparing in his criticism.
“First they drove people to hunger, and now they’ve driven them to war,” Babchenko said. “They call this an antiterrorist operation, but this is a civil war. Brother killing brother.”
Pro-Russian rebels began fighting Ukrainian government troops in mid-April, a month after Russia annexed Crimea. The war has left more than 2,500 people dead and forced at least 340,000 to flee.
In addition, it has left Ukraine’s economy in tatters. Ukraine might need billions in additional support if the fighting persists through next year, the International Monetary Fund warned Tuesday. Just covering the shortfall in the central bank’s reserves would require an additional $19 billion by the end of 2015, it said.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said on his Facebook page that the counter-insurgency operation was over and the nation’s military was now facing the Russian army in a war that could cost “tens of thousands” of lives.
“This is our Great Patriotic War,” he wrote, using the local terminology for World War II.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed Heletey’s remarks as “shocking” and accused him of trying to shift blame and keep his position amid a series of military defeats.
Ukrainian and several Western countries say Russia has sharply escalated the conflict in eastern Ukraine by sending regular army units into its neighbor. NATO estimates at least 1,000 Russian soldiers have entered Ukraine, helping turn the tide in the last week in favor of the Russia-backed insurgents. The military alliance also says 20,000 other Russian soldiers have been positioned along the border.
On a ridge overlooking a road running past Novokaterynivka, which was littered with blackened machine parts, rebels stood watch Tuesday in their tanks. Four trucks packed with grime-caked rebel fighters swept by, along with two APCs and a couple of ambulances, apparently straight from more battles.
The residents in Novokaterynivka who have not fled appeared almost unfazed by the chaos around them.
Children played in a 3-foot crater, collecting fragments of shrapnel. Delivery trucks wove gingerly around the charred military vehicles even while unexploded ordinance lay scattered about. One man let his chickens out to feed.
Militiamen searched from house to house for possible stragglers from the destroyed convoy.
One man who identified himself as Ivan was detained outside his gate by rebels who said he had no papers and feared he might be a fugitive Ukrainian soldier. He was left lying on a pile of sand with a T-shirt over his bloodied face, his hands and legs bound with tape.
Some separatists, particularly locals, openly mourned the costs of the escalating conflict while others, like one at a checkpoint in Starobesheve, relished their military success.
Told about the Ukrainian soldier blown onto an electricity cable, he exuded satisfaction.
“That is my favorite sight: a Nazi hanging from a wire,” he declared. “There is a God after all.”
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Jim Heintz in Kiev contributed to this report.