NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine, Aug. 29 (UPI) -- A southern assault on Mariupol, Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists suggests an attempt to establish an overland route from Russia to Crimea.
Ukrainian rebels organized Friday in Novoazovsk, two days after the Ukrainian military retreated from the city, and began a 27-mile push for the seacoast city of Mariupol. The maneuvers in the southeastern area of the country opened a third front in the conflict, miles away from the embattled cities, further north, of Donetsk and Luhansk.
While Western countries decried the move, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the rebels for the first time, asking them to open a humanitarian corridor to allow Ukrainian troops to retreat, adding the separatists "achieved a major success in intercepting Kiev's military operation."
A rebel commander, identified only by the nickname Svet, said, "We plan to take Mariupol. Now we are fighting for the southeast of Ukraine for Novorossiya." He used a territorial term, "New Russia," that dates to the Russian empire of the 1760s and denotes Russia's historical claim to the area, a phrase revived by Putin.
Capturing Mariupol, a city of 450,000, would allow essentially fill in the gap on the map between Russia and Crimea, a peninsula Russia annexed five months ago.
With the offensive came fresh criticism from the West, and Ukraine's announcement it would seek NATO membership.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been relatively soft in her reproach, due to Germany's heavy economic ties to Russia, said additional sanctions against Russia would be discussed at the European Union meeting in Brussels Saturday. Meanwhile, the Russian ruble was valued in markets Friday at 37 to the U.S. dollar, the weakest it has been since Crimea was annexed.