Fighters of Ukrainian national guard's paramilitary Donbass battalion walk in a schoolyard after a fight with separatist militants in Ilovaisk, some 50km from Donetsk, Ukraine, 26 August 2014. (Ivan Boberskyy/EPA)

Since Monday, more than 200 Ukrainian volunteer soldiers have been trapped in the southeastern town of Ilovaysk, 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 is 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 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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin focused international attention on the trapped soldiers Friday 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, Ukraine’s military spokesman, Col. Andriy 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.

On Saturday, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, Arsen Avakov, said that 28 of the soldiers had managed to escape along with four local journalists.

Lysenko did not give details Saturday about how the military planned to evacuate remaining soldiers surrounded in Ilovaysk, or explain how 28 troops managed to escape overnight.

“With withdrawing troops, Ilovaysk will find itself in the hands of the terrorists. Our task now is to evacuate our military with the least possible losses in order to regroup,” Lysenko said.

‘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 some 200 surrounded Ukrainian Volunteer soldiers, hope for help is running out.

“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.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko’s comments Saturday about withdrawing troops from Ilovaysk. Lysenko said Ukraine was withdrawing troops from the town. He did not say Ukrainian forces were surrendering the town.

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