Do not "mess with Russia" was the bellicose offering from Vladimir Putin on Friday, as the Russia President reminded an increasingly exasperated West that his country maintains one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world.
After being excoriated by Nato and President Obama on Thursday for the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, Putin spoke at a pro-Kremlin youth camp on Friday, issuing a threat against Western military action, saying no country would "think" of conflict with Russia.
Reported by Reuters, Putin said: "I don’t think it would come to anyone’s mind today of starting a large-scale conflict with Russia," adding: "Russia is far from getting involved into a large-scale conflict... We do not want it and aren't going to do it."
The Russian leader reiterated to those assembled at a lake near the capital that the annexation of Crimea earlier this year was vital to save the Russian-speaking population from Ukrainian aggression, adding that the conflict in eastern Ukraine was the result of Kiev’s intransigence.
He said: "Of course, we were always ready to repel any act of aggression toward Russia. Our partners, regardless of the situation their countries are in or their foreign policy line, have to always realise that it’s better not to mess with Russia. I’ll remind you that Russia is one of the largest nuclear powers.
"These are not just words, this is reality and, moreover, we are strengthening our powers of nuclear restraint." Putin continued by saying the country was transforming its armed services into a more "modern and effective" military and its "potential" would continue to be increased.
Current estimates suggest Russia has a stockpile of more than 8,000 nuclear missiles, with around 1800 operational.
A Russian Topol-M nuclear missile
More from the Associated Press
Pro-Russia separatists, relaxed and well-equipped, held firm control on Friday of the strategic coastal town of Novoazovsk, a day after Ukraine claimed tanks and armored vehicles had invaded from Russia. Associated Press reporters saw at least a half-dozen tanks in the town of about 12,000 people, bearing the flags of Novorossiya, the would-be state proclaimed by rebels in two eastern Ukraine regions. None of the tanks bore Russian markings, but ready-made meals seen near one of the tanks carried markings that they were issued by the Russian army.
"There is no Russian equipment coming through here. We are fighting with the machinery the (Ukrainian forces) abandon. They just dump it and flee," said a rebel commander who identified himself only by the nom-de-guerre Frantsuz (The Frenchman). Although such claims of using only confiscated Ukrainian equipment are common, top rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko himself has said Russia was supplying equipment and fighters. And Russia's consistent rejection of the allegations is hotly dismissed by the West.
"Despite Moscow's hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday. "This is a blatant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. It defies all diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution."
On Thursday, NATO said at least 1,000 Russian troops are in Ukraine and later released what it said were satellite photos of Russian self-propelled artillery units moving last week. A spokesman for the rebels in Novoazovsk, who identified himself only as Alexander, said their plan was to try to eventually push westward to the major port city of Mariupol, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) away. There was no sign of imminent movement on Friday, but Alexander's statement underlined fears that the rebels' eventual aim is to establish a land bridge between Russia and the Russia-annexed Crimea peninsula further to the west.
The rebels also showed four Ukrainian soldiers and a wounded fighter from the pro-government Azov Battalion who were being held captive. The wounded fighter, Maxim, said he was taken when his vehicle was ambushed and two comrades killed. "Now I am here and there are negotiations taking place for me to be exchanged," he said. Russian President Vladimir Putin called on pro-Russian separatists to release Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by the rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Putin's statement came several hours after Ukraine accused Russia of entering its territory with tanks, artillery and troops, and Western powers accused Moscow of lying about its role and dangerously escalating the conflict. "I'm calling on insurgents to open a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian troops who were surrounded in order to avoid senseless deaths," Putin said in the statement published on the Kremlin's web-site in the early hours on Friday.
Putin didn't address the claims about Russia's military presence in Ukraine. Instead, he lauded the pro-Russian separatists for "undermining Kiev's military operation which threatened lives of the residents of Donbass and has already led to a colossal death toll among civilians."
Putin's statement could be referring to Ukrainian troops who have been trapped outside the strategic town of Ilovaysk, east of Donetsk, for nearly a week now. Protesters rallied outside the Ukrainian General Staff on Thursday, demanding reinforcements and heavy weaponry for the troops outside Ilovaysk, most of whom are volunteers.
Zakharchenko, the rebel leader, said the Ukrainian troops would have to lay down the arms before they were allowed to go. "With all our respect to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the president of a country which gives us moral support, we are ready to open humanitarian corridors to the Ukrainian troops who were surrounded with the condition that they surrender heavy weaponry and ammunition so that this weaponry and ammunition will not be used against us in future," he said on Russia's state Rossiya 24 television.
A spokesman for Ukraine's national security council, Col. Andriy Lysenko, rejected that condition. "Ukraine is not ready to surrender arms and kneel in front of the aggressor," he told reporters.
The U.N. human rights office on Friday accused both sides of deliberately targeting civilians. Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine have carried out murders, torture and abductions along with other serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, according to the mission's field work between July 16 and Aug. 17. The report also said Ukraine's military is guilty of human rights violations such as arbitrary detentions, disappearances and torture.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic, who visited Kiev on Friday, said the death toll had reached nearly 2,600 by Aug. 27, and described the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine as "alarming." Simonovic condemned rebels for preventing people from leaving cities caught up in the fighting. He also pointed to reports of violations by volunteer battalions under government control.
Putin compared Ukrainian troops firing at civilians and surrounding cities in eastern Ukraine to the Nazi siege of Leningrad. He said residents of Ukraine's east were "suppressed with force" because they disagreed with what he called a coup in Kiev in February.
The Leningrad Siege comparison is a powerful one for Russians and clearly aimed at portraying the Ukraine conflict in stark and tendentious good-versus-evil terms. The 872-day siege, in which at least 670,000 civilians died, is a major touchstone for Russia's exalted sense of heroism amid suffering.
To stop the bloodshed, the Kiev government should open talks with the rebels who took up arms in defense, he said. At a meeting in Milan, several European Union foreign ministers accused Russia of invading eastern Ukraine and said Moscow should be punished with additional, biting economic sanctions.
The diplomats were expected to prepare further measures, which could then be decided by a summit of the bloc's leaders Saturday in Brussels. For the second day, Russian markets reacted nervously to the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine with the Russian ruble diving to the all-time low of 37.10 rubles against the U.S. dollar in early morning trading, but recovered later to 36.90 rubles.
In Donetsk, the largest city under rebel control, the mayor's office reported sustained shelling across town on Friday morning. No casualties were immediately reported.
09/06/2014 6:08 PM EDT
Factory Ablaze After Artillery Fire Near Mariupol
Prolonged artillery fire was heard late on Saturday to the east of the port of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, a Reuters reporter said, in what may be the first significant violation of a ceasefire declared little more than 24 hours earlier.
The reporter saw an industrial facility, a truck and a gas station ablaze in an area within the limits of Mariupol, a city of 500,000 people on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border.
The area had seen fierce fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists before the ceasefire took effect on Friday evening. It had been quiet since then until the artillery fire began late on Saturday.
"There has been an artillery attack. We received a number of impacts, we have no information about casualties," a Ukrainian officer told Reuters at the scene.
09/06/2014 6:03 PM EDT
Ukraine Battalion: Reports Of Civilian Casualties In Shelling
09/06/2014 6:00 PM EDT
#RussiaViolatedCeasefire Trends On Twitter
Twitter users are using the hashtag #RussiaViolatedCeasefire to blame Moscow for renewed violence in east Ukraine.
Hashtag #russiaviolatedceasefire is now showing up as a suggestion. Good work, fellow Ukrainians— неХуёвый Portland (@the_boris) September 6, 2014
Meanwhile, Lithuanian Ambassador to Sweden Eitvydas Bajarunas used the hashtag for call for more information, as rockets and shelling were reported in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
09/06/2014 5:43 PM EDT
Rockets Fired In Ukraine Amid Ceasefire
Witnesses in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol are reporting sustained explosions outside the city and a volunteer battalion of Ukrainian fighters says Grad rockets are being fired at its positions.
The reports Saturday night come little more than a day after Ukraine and Russian-backed separatist rebels signed a cease-fire after more than four months of fighting in the country's east.
The cease-fire had appeared to largely been holding during much of the day.
But late Saturday, witnesses in Mariupol told The Associated Press by telephone that heavy explosions were coming from the city's eastern outskirts, where Ukrainian troops retain defensive lines against the rebels.
The volunteer Azov Battalion said on Facebook that their positions were hit by Grad rockets, but did not give details.
09/06/2014 4:49 PM EDT
Reports Of Shelling In Mariupol
BBC journalists Fergal Keane and Will Vernon in Ukraine's Mariupol say that shelling of the port city has resumed.
#Ukraine shelling started at approx 2235 local and is continuing— Fergal Keane (@fergalkeane47) September 6, 2014
#Ukraine On roof of hotel and can see flashes from explosions and hear powerful detonations.— Fergal Keane (@fergalkeane47) September 6, 2014
09/06/2014 12:21 PM EDT
ICRC Says Aid Trucks Forced Back By Shelling
The International Committee of the Red Cross said its aid trucks were forced to turn back on Saturday morning due to shelling in east Ukraine.
09/06/2014 10:59 AM EDT
Putin, Poroshenko Agree Cease-Fire Holding
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko agreed on Saturday in a telephone call that a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine was generally holding but said further steps were needed to make it more durable.
The ceasefire between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists took effect on Friday evening, part of a wider peace plan aimed at ending five months of fighting in eastern Ukraine.
"(The two leaders) also stressed the need for the maximum involvement of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in monitoring the situation ... and for cooperation in providing Ukrainian and international humanitarian help," Poroshenko's office said in a statement.
09/06/2014 10:58 AM EDT
Rebel Leader: Prisoner Exchange To Take Place Saturday
A separatist leader said that the rebels and Ukrainian government will begin the exchange of prisoners of war, part of the peace roadmap, later on Saturday, Reuters reports. Meanwhile, Kiev said the details of the exchange were still being worked out.
09/05/2014 12:38 PM EDT
Peace Deal Outlined
New York Times Moscow bureau chief Neil MacFarquhar outlines the different aspects of the Ukrainian peace deal.
The Ukrainian National Information Agency released a list of the 14 points included in the cease-fire plan. #Ukraine— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
2 some focused on cease-fire itself, some on practical steps to get the government functioning and some on Donbas political future. #Ukraine— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
3 The agreement followed almost verbatim a cease-fire proposal first put out by Mr. Poroshenko in June.— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
4 14 points include amnesty for all those who disarm and who did not commit serious crimes, as well as the release of all hostages. #Ukraine— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
5 Militias will be disbanded, and a 10-kilometer buffer zone established along Russian-Ukrainian border. Area subject to joint patrols— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
6 Separatists agreed to leave administrative buildings they control and broadcasts from Ukraine to resume on TV #Ukraine— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
7 On future, the agreement said power would be decentralized and the Russian language protected. Region consulted on selection of governor— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
8. Early elections and jobs....No mention of a chicken in every pot. #Ukraine— Neil MacFarquhar (@NeilMacFarquhar) September 5, 2014
09/05/2014 12:18 PM EDT
Obama: Hopeful But Skeptical
U.S. President Barack Obama said he was hopeful but skeptical about a ceasefire agreed in Ukraine on Friday and urged European allies to agree on new sanctions against Russia that could be suspended if the peace plan holds.
He also said he was leaving a two-day NATO summit in Wales confident that U.S. allies were prepared to join a broad coalition to take action to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State militants in Iraq.
"We also sent a strong message to Russia that actions have consequences. Today the United States and Europe are finalizing measures to deepen and broaden our sanctions across Russia's financial, energy and defense sectors," Obama told a news conference.
NATO had made clear it would defend every ally, and that it supported Ukraine's sovereignty against what he called Russian aggression, he said.
"With respect to the ceasefire agreement, obviously we are hopeful but based on past experience also skeptical that in fact the separatists will follow through and the Russians will stop violating Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. So it has to be tested," the president said.