* Russia proposes "corridor" for encircled Kiev troops
* "Best not to mess with us," says defiant Putin
* EU ministers discuss new sanctions on Moscow, other
* Kiev prepares to defend port in path of pro-Russian
(Adds Kiev preparing to defend Mariupol)
By Alexei Anishchuk and Richard Balmforth
LAKE SELIGER, Russia/KIEV, Aug 29 Ukraine called
on Friday for full membership in NATO, its strongest plea yet
for Western military help after accusing Russia of sending in
armoured columns that have driven back its forces on behalf of
Russian President Vladimir Putin, defiant as ever, compared
Kiev's drive to regain control of its rebellious eastern cities
to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in World War Two. He
announced that rebels had succeeded in halting it, and proposed
that they now permit surrounded Ukrainian troops to retreat.
Speaking to young people at a summer camp, Putin told his
countrymen they must be "ready to repel any aggression towards
Russia". He described Ukrainians and Russians as "practically
one people", language that Ukrainians say dismisses the very
existence of their thousand-year-old nation.
The past 72 hours have seen pro-Russian rebels suddenly open
a new front and push Ukrainian troops out of a key town in
strategic coastal territory along the Sea of Azov. Kiev and
Western countries say the reversal was the result of the arrival
of armoured columns of Russian troops, sent by Putin to prop up
a rebellion that would otherwise have been near collapse.
Rebels said they would accept Putin's proposal to allow Kiev
forces, who they say are surrounded, to retreat, provided the
government forces turn over weapons and armour. Kiev said that
only proved that the fighters were doing Moscow's bidding.
Full Ukrainian membership of NATO, complete with the
protection of a mutual defence pact with the United States, is
still an unlikely prospect. But by announcing it is now seeking
to join the alliance, Kiev has put more pressure on the West to
find ways to protect it. NATO holds a summit next week in Wales.
NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he
respected Ukraine's right to seek alliances.
"Despite Moscow's hollow denials, it is now clear that
Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border
into eastern and south-eastern Ukraine," Rasmussen said. "This
is not an isolated action, but part of a dangerous pattern over
many months to destabilise Ukraine as a sovereign nation."
Kiev said it was rallying to defend the port of Mariupol,
the next big city in the path of the pro-Russian advance in the
"Fortifications are being built. Local people are coming out
to help our troops, to stop the city being taken. We are ready
to repel any offensive on Mariupol," military spokesman Andriy
So far, the West had made clear it is not prepared to fight
to protect Ukraine but is instead relying on economic sanctions,
first imposed after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in
March and tightened several times since.
But those sanctions seem to have done little to deter Putin,
leaving Western politicians to seek tougher measures without
crippling their own economies, particularly in Europe which
relies on Russian energy exports.
European foreign ministers met in Milan on Friday ahead of a
weekend EU summit. They made clear the bloc will discuss further
economic sanctions against Moscow. Some said that was no longer
sufficient, and other measures to help Kiev should be discussed.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said countries
that had tried so far to mediate now needed to explain "what
their ideas (are) to stop President Putin and save Ukraine as
she is". Sweden's Carl Bildt said: "Sanctions alone are not
enough: he (Putin) is prepared to sacrifice his own people".
Poland denied permission for Russia's defence minister to
fly over its air space after a trip to Slovakia, forcing him to
return to Bratislava. Warsaw said he could fly if he reported
the status of his plane as civilian rather than military.
"BEST NOT TO MESS WITH US"
Moscow still publicly denies its forces are fighting to
support pro-Russian rebels who have declared independence in two
provinces of eastern Ukraine. But the rebels themselves have all
but confirmed it, saying thousands of Russian troops have fought
on their behalf while "on leave".
NATO has issued satellite photos of what it says is
artillery fielded by more than 1,000 Russian troops fighting in
Ukraine. Kiev has released interviews with captured Russian
troops. Reuters has seen an armoured column of Russian troops on
the Russian side of the frontier, showing signs of having
recently returned from battle with no insignia on their
uniforms. Members of an official Russian human rights body say
as many as 100 Russian soldiers died in a single battle in
Ukraine in August.
Encouraged by state media, Russians have so far strongly
backed Putin's hard line, despite Western sanctions that have
hurt the economy, the Kremlin's own ban on imports of most
Western food, and now reports of Russian troops dying in battle.
Putin's lengthy public appearance on Friday and his
overnight statement on the conflict appear to be an
acknowledgment that the war has reached a turning point,
potentially requiring greater Russian sacrifice.
Putin answered questions from young supporters, some of whom
waved banners bearing his face, at a pro-Kremlin youth camp on
the shores of a lake. Wearing a grey sweater and light blue
jeans, he looked relaxed, but his tone grew intense while he
spoke about Russia's military might, reminding the crowd that
Russia was a strong nuclear power.
"Russia's partners ... should understand it's best not to
mess with us," Putin said.
Putin compared Kiev's assault on the rebel-held cities of
Donetsk and Luhansk to the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad in
which 1 million civilians died, perhaps the most powerful
historical analogy it is possible to invoke in Russia.
"Small villages and large cities surrounded by the Ukrainian
army which is directly hitting residential areas with the aim of
destroying the infrastructure," he said. "It sadly reminds me
the events of the Second World War, when German fascist ...
occupiers surrounded our cities."
He said the only solution to the conflict was for Kiev to
negotiate directly with the rebels. Kiev has long refused to do
so, arguing that the rebels are not a legitimate force on their
own but proxies for Moscow, which must agree to rein them in.
Earlier, in a statement released by the Kremlin overnight,
Putin pointed to the rebels' gains of recent days on the
battlefield: "It is clear that the rebellion has achieved some
serious successes in stopping the armed operation by Kiev."
"I call on the militia forces to open a humanitarian
corridor for encircled Ukraine servicemen in order to avoid
pointless victims, to allow them to leave the fighting area
without impediment, join their families ...," he said.
Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the main rebel group, told
a Russian television station his forces were ready to let the
encircled Ukrainian troops pull out, provided they leave behind
their heavy armoured vehicles and ammunition.
In Kiev, President Petro Poroshenko held an urgent meeting
with security advisers overnight, after cancelling a trip to
Turkey due to the "radically deteriorating situation".
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk told a government meeting on
Friday the cabinet would "bring before parliament a law to scrap
the non-aligned status of the Ukrainian state and establish a
course towards membership of NATO".
Were NATO to extend its mutual defence pact to Ukraine, it
would be the biggest change in the security architecture of
Europe since the 1990s. After the Cold War, NATO defied Russian
objections and granted its security guarantee to ex-Communist
countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania. But it largely
stopped at the border of the former Soviet Union, admitting only
the three tiny Baltic states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
In 2008 NATO denied Ukraine and Georgia a fast track towards
membership. Russia invaded Georgia a few months later.
This year, after Putin annexed Crimea, NATO countries
including the United States have repeatedly said they would be
prepared to go to war to protect any member, but not to defend
Kiev hopes to get its message across to Russians that their
government is waging war without telling them. Ukrainian Defence
Minister Valery Heletey said many Russian soldiers had been
captured and killed: "Unfortunately, they have been buried
simply under building rubble. We are trying to find their bodies
to return them to their mothers for burial."
Russia's defence ministry again denied the presence of its
soldiers in Ukraine: "We have noticed the launch of this
informational 'canard' and are obliged to disappoint its
overseas authors and their few apologists in Russia," a ministry
official told Interfax news agency.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Jucca, Francesca Landini, Maria
Tsvetkova, Anton Zverev, Gabriela Baczynska, Polina Devitt,
Vladimir Soldatkin, Thomas Grove, Adrian Croft, Andreas Rinke
and Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Giles