As Russia forces push forward towards the southeastern Ukraine coastal city of Mariupol and evidence mounts of direct Russian military support to the insurgent fighters, besieged volunteer units of "patriots" leading the way in the country's fight back say they are not receiving enough support from Kiev to win the war.
"We have reinforcements, but it's not enough, it's like a drop in the sea," Alexey, a commander of the Dnipro Battalion, told VICE News this evening. "We need armament, what we have is not enough. We need anti-tanks artillery to hold the city."
Plumes of smoke rise above Novoazovsk after shelling. Photo by Henry Langston VICE News
Today, the fierce battle for Novoazovsk raged for a third consecutive day as a fresh bombardment of artillery fire hit the eastern outskirts of the town just 25 miles from Mariupol, a strategically important port city on Ukraine's southeast Azov coast.
The flare in fighting comes amid mounting reports of military vehicle movement across Ukraine's eastern border with Russia, which is less than nine miles from the most recent clashes.
The Ukrainian government claimed on Monday that a convoy of Russian vehicles including 10 tanks, two armored vehicles, and two trucks, had entered the country.
Reporters for the Associated Press have also stated that they witnessed "large convoys of military hardware" travel through the rebel-held town of Krasnodon on three evenings between August 19 and 21. .
Kiev and its western allies have long accused Moscow of covertly supporting the rebel uprising by allowing fighters and weapons to flow in across Ukraine's porous eastern border.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian forces captured 10 Russian soldiers inside its borders. According to Russian media reports, Moscow has claimed the men crossed the border by "accident" during a military exercise, an explanation that Kiev has rejected.
This morning, local council workers hid in the basement of Novoazovsk's administration building — which at that time still flew the Ukrainian flag — as mortars whistled overhead. Several shells hit a bread factory near a Ukrainian National Guard position, causing terrified workers to run inside the building for cover and the nearby Ukrainian fighters to make a hasty retreat.
"Novoazovsk is being shelled both from Russia and from positions on Ukrainian territory," Ukrainian National Security Council spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev.
Cars waving white flags and signs reading deti [Russian for children] poured out of the town during a break in the shelling.
"Lots of civilians are fleeing, yesterday and today," Alec Valerivich, chairman of Novoazovsk local authority, told VICE News. "Last night was quiet, the Ukrainians were pushed out their positions yesterday, but then returned this morning."
By the afternoon, however, Ukrainian forces appeared to have retreated again, this time decisively, as reports came in on social media that a column of tanks belonging to the pro-Russia forces had entered the town on the eastern road. Members of pushed back volunteer battalions told VICE News that the enemy fighters were digging in artillery positions, and they feared a further advance overnight.
Bread factory workers clean up after shelling in Novoazovsk. Photo by Henry Langston/VICE News
At a newly established Ukrainian road blockade in the village of Bezimenne, halfway along the western road back to Mariupol, a fighter in the Dnipro Battalion going by the nom de guerre "Kamil" said that they could not hold their posts.
"We were told to hold Novoazovsk at all costs but were unable to do so," he told VICE News. "We only have small arms and a few RPGs [rocket propelled grenade launchers] but nothing substantial — we can't fire back at the artillery so we keep getting pushed back."
"This big military parade in Kiev is like a slap in the face when we have nothing," he added, in reference to the procession of 145 military vehicles and 2,500 servicemen that marched through the capital in celebration of the country's Independence Day on Sunday.
Andrei Lysenko, spokesperson for the Kiev backed anti-terror operation in the country's east this afternoon claimed Ukrainian forces still controlled Novoazovsk, but admitted that all the villages to the north had been lost.
Speaking by telephone, Konstantin Batozsky, an advisor to governor of Donetsk Sergey Taruta — who has been based in Mariupol since the rebels took the region's administrative capital — told VICE News that port city of 460,000 remained "calm," despite the encroaching fighting. But Batozsky admitted that there was little that could be done in the face of a full-scale Russian invasion.
"The objective is to further open our border, and to expose us on another front," he added.
If inside the limits of Novoazovsk, pro-Russia forces are now within artillery firing range of Mariupol.
Back in May, the city witnessed heavy clashes inside its limits. In one of the first serious actions of the Kiev-backed anti-terror operation, Ukrainian armored personnel carriers roared through the streets of the coastal city and snipers opened fire, in a battle that ousted the pro-Russia separatists, who had seized the city's administration and police buildings. At least seven civilians were killed in the clashes.
Battalion Dnipro search vehicles between Novoazovsk and Bezimenne. Photo by Henry Langston/VICE News
Meanwhile the rebels also appeared to be making other crucial gains across Ukraine's war-torn east. This morning in Iloviask, where a fierce battle has been raging for days, Donbas Battalion Commander Semyon Semyonchenko posted desperate pleas for support from Kiev on Facebook, saying that today would be a decisive moment in who controls town, 47 miles east of the rebels' capital in Donetsk, would be "decisive."
But by afternoon, any hope for the encircled Ukrainians fighting inside the town seemed to have all but vanished, as the commander made another post stating that the battalion had been "betrayed" by the "many-starred generals in Kiev," and could "wait no longer."
"The responsibility for this lies with the minister of defense and the ATO [anti-terror operation] command," he added, warning that Iloviask would become a "mass grave" for Ukrainian forces.
In a final post, Semyonchenko said that the claims of ATO spokesperson Andrei Lysenko that reinforcements had been sent to Iloviask were untrue.
"This is a fairytale [that is] more like a horror film," he wrote.
Authorities in Kiev have, however, conceded that they today lost Starobesheve, a village south of rebel-held Donetsk, after several days of clashes in the area. Rebels claimed to have overrun nearby Olenivka as well.
The rippling advance of pro-Russia forces comes just three days after Ukraine's Independence Day, when the newly appointed rebel prime minister of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic thanked Russia for its support, and warned that fighters had been preparing special units of tanks, artillery, and snipers for a fresh offensive.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem
Additional reporting by Henry Langston