MOSCOW — The key port city of Mariupol became the latest flash point of rapidly intensifying hostilities in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, as a barrage of rocket fire struck the area, killing dozens of civilians, and pro-Russian rebels announced a push toward the strategic coastal city that serves as Ukraine’s last bastion of control in the region.
The onslaught on Mariupol, which separates Russia from its newly annexed territory of Crimea, comes just a day after pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk rejected an existing cease-fire agreement and pledged to press their offensive all the way to the borders of the region.
Saturday’s shelling sparked a fresh wave of outrage in Kiev and among its allies, who blame the rebels and Russia for the bloody event and warned that if Moscow did not withdraw support for the separatists, the West would step up already punishing pressure against Russia.
But the quick and dramatic escalation of hostilities and the silence from the Kremlin Saturday as at the death toll climbed — at least 30 civilians, according to city officials — suggests that neither sanctions, nor low oil prices, nor other economic difficulties are likely to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to heed Western demands to help end the conflict.
Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko announced the Mariupol offensive on Saturday during a memorial service to the victims of a recent bus stop shelling in Donetsk, calling it “the best monument to all our dead,” according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Zakharchenko later clarified on a rebel Web site that the drive on Mariupol was to “suppress” the Ukrainian troops to the east of it, not storm the city. He also charged that the shelling of civilians was an incident of friendly fire by Ukrainian forces, who then tried to blame the rebels for their mistake.
But Ukrainian officials said at least three Grad rocket-launching systems had fired on Mariupol and squarely blamed the rebels for the civilian deaths. President Petro Poroshenko called the shelling “a crime against humanity.” And National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov said, “Putin is directly responsible.”
Kiev and its allies believe the rebels’ new offensive on Mariupol and Debaltseve — a strategically important city on the route from Donetsk to Luhansk — along with other areas of eastern Ukraine is being fueled by Russian reinforcements. Ukrainian officials said over 9,000 Russian troops are operating in Ukraine this week.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry also decried Russia on Saturday for its “irresponsible and dangerous decision” to resupply rebels in recent weeks, warning that if Russia did not pull back “all weapons, fighters and financial backing” for the separatists, “U.S. and international pressure on Russia and its proxies will only increase.”
Neither the Kremlin nor Russia’s Foreign Ministry reacted to the deadly events in Mariupol on Saturday. But Russian officials have routinely denied Western accusations that they are sending troops or weapons into eastern Ukraine to support the pro-Russian rebels fighting there.
Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov also cautioned the West against trying to push Putin through sanctions Friday, saying that a Russian would “never, never turn away and give up his leader” because of outside pressure, and warning that continued economic sanctions against Russia “will be a bleeding wound for decades.”
The United States and Europe have applied several rounds of sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and its involvement in Ukraine.
Since clashes between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists began in April, Mariupol has largely been under the control of the government in Kiev.
But the area around Mariupol was the scene of intense fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels during the late summer, as rebels — backed by Russian support, Ukrainian officials maintained — made a push for the city. That was shortly before the two sides agreed to a cease-fire in Minsk, Belarus, in early September.
That cease-fire is now effectively dead, after pro-Russian rebel leaders in Donetsk said Friday they were no longer recognizing it and would not initiate any new peace talks.
The United Nations estimated Friday that almost 5,100 people have died in Ukraine since the fighting began last April — 262 in the past nine days before the updated figure was published, making it the deadliest period since this summer, before the Minsk cease-fire agreement was signed.