A member of Donbass battalion, a volunteer militia group devoted to ensuring a united Ukraine, resews a uniform in a school converted into a base, on August 18, 2014 in the small easter city of Popasna, Lugansk region, recently freed by Ukrainian forces from pro-Russia militants. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

A group of Ukrainian volunteer soldiers managed to escape Saturday from Ilovaysk, a southeastern town that has been besieged by pro-Russian separatists for almost a week, Ukrainian officials said.

Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, announced that 28 of the more than 200 fighters trapped in the town had escaped, but the military did not explain how that had been accomplished — or offer details about plans to evacuate the rest of the troops.

“There’s an operation to withdraw our military from there,” spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said Saturday. “The major task now is to evacuate our military with the least losses.”

The soldiers have been cornered in the town since Monday, surrounded by separatists they say have been freshly supplied with troops and high-tech weapons from Russia. Food and ammunition have dwindled, and the death toll has been mounting.

The soldiers’ plight and their apparent dispatch into battle with little training and inadequate equipment has sparked scorn across Ukraine in recent days. Volunteer commanders venting on Facebook have denounced what they say is the government’s neglect, and protesters have gathered in the capital, Kiev, chanting “Weapons for patriots.”

The presidents of the European Commission and Ukraine cautioned Russia against escalating the conflict in eastern Ukraine Saturday. (Reuters)

The episode is significant because it exposes the weakness of Ukraine’s armed forces — the result of years of neglect — as the country pivots from a civil conflict to face a far more formidable foe, its neighbor to the east.

In a further sign Saturday of the magnitude of that challenge, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces have been warning residents in Novoazovsk, a coastal border town recently recaptured by pro-Russian separatists, to prepare for the arrival of Russian forces. According to Lysenko, Russia was offering money to residents for information about Ukrainian troops and dropping leaflets instructing locals on how to behave when the troops reached the town.

The nine-point list of instructions on the leaflet — the authenticity of which could not be verified — includes directions to “not under any circumstances hinder the movement of Russian troops,” to “only communicate in Russian,” to “prepare lists of servicemen of the Ukrainian army, participants in the Maidan, civil groups and leaders of national communities to be forwarded to employees of the Russian Security Service,” and to “be ready at any time” to give up living space to “peacekeeping forces of the Russian Federation.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin focused international attention Friday on the soldiers trapped in Ilovaysk by calling in a statement for a protected route to allow them to retreat, even as evidence mounted of a broad incursion into Ukraine by Russian troops and military vehicles.

“I call on the rebel forces to open a humanitarian corridor for the Ukrainian troops who are surrounded, so as to avoid unnecessary casualties and to give them the opportunity to withdraw from the zone of operations,” Putin said.

The statement opened a day on which Ukraine raised the prospect of joining NATO in hopes of deterring an outright Russian invasion and Putin likened the separatists’ Ukrainian antagonists to the Nazi forces that invaded Russia in World War II.

By Friday evening, Lysenko said no corridor had materialized near Ilovaysk, and the spokesman for one of the largest militia battalions said the fighters had come under heavy fire throughout the day as they tried to break through a double ring of rebels. The day’s death toll was not known.

“Fights are being conducted. There are dead people. There are wounded. But there is hope,” said Vasilisa Trofimovich, the battalion spokesman.

‘Now I understand’

One volunteer soldier, who gave his name only as Vladimir for safety reasons, said he and other members of his unit had been hunkered down in a basement, rationing the bullets for their aging assault rifles and killing farm chickens to survive. Meanwhile, he said, they were being attacked from all sides by separatists and Russians armed with sophisticated guns and tanks.

“For a while, I thought they wouldn’t abandon us,” he said of Ukraine’s government, speaking by telephone. “But now I understand what’s really going on.”

The battalions were launched in spring after the onset of tensions between Russian-backed separatists, largely based in the east, and Ukrainians who want the country to ally itself with Europe and the West.

As fighting began, citizens scrambled to defend the country against the separatist uprising after it became apparent that the armed forces had been enfeebled by years of cost-cutting and neglect. A text-message campaign seeking funds for military defense brought in millions.

Willing but ill-prepared

At the same time, former protesters who had helped oust a president in February hungered to join the fight. The national government established volunteer battalions as a way to help would-be fighters get to the front under some form of government auspices. More than 7,000 volunteer soldiers now serve in 10 battalions under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. By contrast, rebel forces say they have about 12,000 volunteer soldiers.

One former small-business owner from the southeastern city of Donetsk, who said he had never picked up a gun, said he joined up to fight after his city descended into chaos and he was forced to close his business.

“I realized it had to be me who was going to defend my city,” said the businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

He found himself in a one-month training course with lawyers, doctors and other professionals, including a chef from one of Kiev’s finest hotels. At the end of training, he was given a Soviet-era Kalashnikov assault rifle. But the snipers in his unit fared worse: They left training with cartridges that dated to World War II.

The volunteers were told their role was to secure cities in the wake of the country’s regular armed forces, but they quickly realized they were going to be involved in full-scale combat.

A spokesman for the military’s National Security and Defense Council, Bogdan Voron, rejected the idea that the volunteer brigades were unprepared.

“A lot of these volunteers had [mandatory] military service. They are policemen, former servicemen,” he said. “They have a really good background to serve their country.”

In Ilovaysk, according to soldiers and official military accounts, about 350 members of several volunteer battalions were sent in on Aug. 19 to secure the town and hold their position. The town of about 17,000 is a major railway hub and a strategic link to Donetsk, now under rebel control.

The businessman spent several days fighting in Ilovaysk, where he witnessed the horrific spectacle of a Ukrainian army soldier tied in the position of crucifixion on a local bridge, where he slowly died. Shortly afterward, the businessman escaped.

The volunteer battalions, fighting alongside regular Ukrainian forces, managed to take about two-thirds of the town on their own, according to soldiers and reports from Information Resistance, a group that uses data from Ukraine’s military and other sources. But on Monday, the volunteers and regulars found themselves outnumbered by rebels who the United States believes are being backed by Russian soldiers with tanks and other weaponry.

That day, the Ukrainian military alleged that a column of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers had breached the border, and the volunteer battalions said they began to see strong reinforcements to their front and rear. They found themselves surrounded, they said.

Vladimir, the young volunteer, said that he and his unit mates, who had already lost two fellow soldiers, have been spending their time in sporadic firefights. Some were ready to fight on, and some were in a daze.

“We will fight to the end,” he said.

Natalie Gryvnyak contributed to this report from Kiev and Mariupol. Karoun Demirjian contributed from Moscow.