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World

Ukrainian City Braces For Increasingly Lopsided Fight

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

EU leaders threaten Russia with more sanctions over its military involvement in Ukraine, and both sides in the war there are getting ready for an anticipated assault on the strategic port city of Mariupol. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in that port city and reports on what is increasingly becoming a lopsided fight.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: In Brussels yesterday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko painted a stark picture of the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO: Thousands of the foreign troops and hundreds of the foreign tanks now on the territory of Ukraine with a very high risk - not only for the peace and stability for Ukraine but for the whole peace and stability in Europe.

NELSON: The foreign military that he is talking about is Russia's. Although the Kremlin continues to deny any involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, surveillance and intelligence reports indicate otherwise. NATO says there are at least 1,000 Russian soldiers fighting here. And the Ukrainians report armored columns coming across the border.

In nearby Novoazovsk, a seaside town that pro-Russian separatists recently captured after heavy fighting, it's clear someone is supplying the rebels. The fighters are wearing new military grade camouflage uniforms and boots. Some carry high-grade Kalashnikovs used by professional soldiers. At least one checkpoint guard has a Russian accent. And a tank we saw looked a lot like a T-72, which the Russians use. But the rebel battalion commander says everyone and everything here is Ukrainian. He calls himself Svat, and says he's a Lieutenant Colonel with Ukrainian Army reserves.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL SVAT: (Russian spoken).

NELSON: Svat says he is confident his men will take Mariupol because they are better fighters and have a higher morale. He adds they are prepared to go all the way to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv to create Novorossiya, or new Russia. It's a historical name for an area conquered by the Russian Empire in the 18th century. But it's also what President Vladimir Putin and pro-Russian separatist forces are calling parts of Ukraine that are under attack.

Back in Mariupol, Ukrainian forces and residents are working side-by-side to beef up the city's defenses - laying mines, digging trenches and erecting concrete barriers. Two armed battalions paid for by two powerful Ukrainian oligarchs will fight alongside their country's military to repel the advancing rebels. Captain Ruslan Muzichuk is a spokesman for the National Guard force here. He disputes rebel commander Svat's contention that Ukrainian troop morale is low.

CAPTAIN RUSLAN MUZICHUK: Here I can tell that the morale is quite high because they have support from - even from the local population. And it's a very positive sign that they see the population on their side, not like in some other regions.

NELSON: But many Ukrainians, when speaking privately here, predict the defense of Mariupol will fall short, given Ukrainian armaments are a generation behind the Russian ones the rebels are allegedly using. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR news, Mariupol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.