President Petro Poroshenko visited the southeastern Ukrainian port of Mariupol Monday in a show of solidarity with its embattled citizens, some of whom have been digging trenches around the city of 500,000 to protect it from pro-Russia rebels.
Speaking at one of Mariupol’s metallurgical plants, Poroshenko vowed to defend the city from separatist forces who advanced toward it last week before a fragile cease-fire was announced.
"This is our Ukrainian land and we will not surrender it to anybody," the Twitter account under his name said.
Mariupol and Donetsk, Ukraine
Upon arriving in the city, a key hub for Ukraine's steel exports, Poroshenko promised victory over rebel forces.
He had ordered the military "to secure the defense of Mariupol" with multiple rocket launchers, tanks and air cover, he said. "The enemy will suffer a crushing defeat.''
Observers said rebel advances toward Mariupol could be part of push to establish a land corridor connecting Russian mainland with Ukraine's Crimea, which Moscow annexed in March.
Poroshenko also announced that under last week's truce agreement with separatist rebels, Ukraine has so far managed to secure the release of about 1,200 prisoners of war. Ukrainian media, quoting military officials, later reported that number could be lower.
The Kremlin reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Ukraine crisis with Poroshenko by telephone Monday.
The call was part of efforts "to discuss steps, which could facilitate a peaceful resolution of the situation in southeastern Ukraine," a Kremlin statement said, adding that the dialogue would continue.
Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring the current cease-fire in Ukraine, has described it as "shaky" and only as a half-measure toward resolving the conflict.
Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, the OSCE's chair, said that the next few days would be crucial but that a long-term solution is needed. "The different actors must really push for a [political] breakthrough," he said.
EU approves new sanctions
The European Union on Monday approved a new round of sanctions against Russia over its role in Ukraine, but delayed their enforcement while assessing whether the current cease-fire in Ukraine is holding.
The sanctions target several top Russian oil producers and pipeline operators, who would be prohibited from raising capital and borrowing on European markets. The sanctions initially were set to be enforced Tuesday.
The new EU measures also expand visa bans and asset freezes on Russian companies and individuals, as well as some Ukrainian separatists.
The latest sanctions add to those Europe and the United States already have imposed on Moscow, which is accused of providing direct help to separatists in Ukraine. Russia denies it has helped them or sent its own troops into Ukraine, despite evidence to the contrary.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev threatened possible restrictions on Russia's airspace if new sanctions are imposed. Medvedev said some Western airlines could face bankruptcy if not allowed to fly over Russia. The prime minister's remarks were published Monday in the Russian daily Vedomosti.
US-led naval exercises
Ukraine and the United States on Monday began the Sea Breeze naval exercise off the southwestern Ukrainian port of Odessa.
The three-day drill, conducted with several other countries, is part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.
The maneuvers, taking place against the backdrop of an ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, will focus on testing international cooperation to ensure safe navigation in crisis-ridden areas.
The drill comes ahead of previously scheduled U.S.-led multinational ground exercises in western Ukraine later this month.
The maneuvers, dubbed Rapid Trident, will take place September 15-26 in Yavoriv, Ukraine. About 1,300 personnel from 15 nations, including some 200 U.S. troops, are scheduled to take part in the annual exercise.
Poroshenko to address US Congress?
Two top U.S. senators called on House Speaker John Boehner to invite Petro Poroshenko to address Congress when the Ukrainian president visits Washington later this month.
"We believe that it is critically important for every member of Congress to hear from Ukraine’s president at this defining moment for not only Ukraine, but for Russia and the post-Cold War international order," Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders Robert Menendez and Bob Corker wrote in a letter to Boehner.
Being invited to address both houses of the U.S. Congress is considered a rare privilege afforded only to select dignitaries.
Poroshenko is scheduled to be in Washington September 18 to meet with President Barack Obama.
Menendez was in Kyiv last week meeting with Poroshenko and other Ukrainian officials.
Despite Friday's cease-fire agreement, clashes continued between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces on the outskirts of Mariupol, as well as near Donetsk.
But rebels will not be allowed to capture the port, said Ukrainian Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mykola Zhybarev.
He reassured "Ukrainian people, our friends and our brothers, that government forces "will carry out our mission. We will not retreat from our land. We are serving on our land and we will protect it."
Watch video from Mariupol by Daniel Schearf:
Rebels in late August fired missiles that sank one of the Coast Guard's few ships, killing two guards and wounding several others.
It was the first maritime attack since the conflict in Ukraine's east erupted in April, with armed separatists taking control of government offices.
To prevent a repeated strike, Coast Guard patrols changed tactics and became more active, said Captain Yuriy Loshak.
“We never expected them to use weapons from the shore on us. At that moment, the boat wasn't threatening to any people on the coast or terrorists. It was just carrying out its duty defending our borders in the sea,” Loshak.
If the rebels were to seize Mariupol, they would gain port access to the sea and extend their coastal control.
They hope to form a corridor linking Russia to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow annexed from Ukraine in March.
Boats are Soviet-era
But the captain acknowledges the few boats they have date back decades to the Soviet era.
“We always need more boats, but we have what we have. All our boats are on full alert. All of them are properly functioning," Loshak said.
Zhybarev said the government in Kyiv is giving them appropriate backing.
“Right now we are receiving lots of support. We get lots of supplies, both technical and fuel and oil, as well as a rotation of guards," Zhybarev said.
Western nations are helping out by donating equipment, such as flak jackets from Canada.
And the U.S. Coast Guard is expected to deliver several rubber speed boats at the end of September.
But despite Zhybarev 's confidence, many worry Mariupol and its strategic port could be under rebel control by the end of the month.
Daniel Schearf contributed to this report from Mariupol. Some material came from Reuters.