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Ukrainian military’s weakness highlighted by trapped soldiers’ plight

Since Monday, more than 200 Ukrainian volunteer soldiers have been trapped in the southeastern town of Ilyovaisk, surrounded by separatists they say have been freshly supplied with troops and high-tech weapons from Russia. Food and ammunition have dwindled, and the death toll is mounting.

The soldiers’ plight and their apparent dispatch into battle with little training and inadequate equipment has sparked scorn across Ukraine in recent days. Volunteer commanders venting on Facebook have denounced what they say is the government’s neglect, and protesters have gathered in the capital, Kiev, chanting, “Weapons for patriots.”

The episode is significant because it exposes the weakness of Ukraine’s armed forces – the result of years of neglect – as the country pivots from a civil conflict to face a far more formidable foe, its neighbor to the east.

Russian President Vladimir Putin focused international attention on the trapped soldiers yesterday by calling in a statement for a protected route to allow them to retreat, even as evidence mounted of a broad incursion into Ukraine by Russian troops and military vehicles.

“I call on the rebel forces to open a humanitarian corridor for the Ukrainian troops who are surrounded, so as to avoid unnecessary casualties and to give them the opportunity to withdraw from the zone of operations,” Putin said.

The statement opened a day on which Ukraine raised the prospect of joining NATO in hopes of deterring an outright Russian invasion and Putin likened the separatists’ Ukrainian antagonists to the Nazi forces that invaded Russia in World War II.

By yesterday evening, Ukraine’s military spokesman said no corridor had materialized near Ilyovaisk, and the spokesman for one of the largest militia battalions said the fighters had come under heavy fire throughout the day as they tried to break through a double ring of rebels. The day’s death toll was not known.

“Fights are being conducted. There are dead people. There are wounded. But there is hope,” said Vasilisa Trofimovich, the battalion spokesman.

One volunteer soldier said he and other members of his unit had been hunkered down in a basement, rationing the bullets for their aging assault rifles and killing farm chickens to survive. Meanwhile, he said, they were being attacked from all sides by separatists and Russians armed with sophisticated guns and tanks.

“For a while, I thought they wouldn’t abandon us,” he said of Ukraine’s government, speaking by telephone. “But now I understand what’s really going on.”

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