Pro-Russian insurgents commandeered six Ukrainian armoured vehicles and hoisted Russian flags over them, dampening the government’s hopes of re-establishing control over the restive east.
The Ukrainian soldiers manning the vehicles offered no armed resistance, and masked pro-Russian militias in combat fatigues sat on top as they drove into the eastern city of Slovyansk, a hotbed of unrest against Ukraine’s interim government.
In Brussels, Nato said it was immediately strengthening its military footprint along its eastern border – which largely lies next to Russia – in response to Russia’s aggression.
Insurgents in Slovyansk have seized police HQ and the administration building, demanding broader autonomy for eastern Ukraine and closer ties with Russia. Their actions have been repeated in at least eight other cities in eastern Ukraine.
One of the Ukrainian soldiers said they had defected to the pro-Russian side – raising the spectre of an uprising led by disgruntled Ukrainian forces.
The Ukrainian government said its troops had entered Kramatorsk yesterday, where locals and “members of Russian sabotage groups” seized six armoured personnel vehicles and drove them to Slovyansk. The military said “the whereabouts of the Ukrainian servicemen” were not yet known.
Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, meanwhile, said Nato will respond to what he called Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Ukraine is not a Nato member but several Nato members – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland – border Russia. Nato members Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey also border the Black Sea along with Russia and Ukraine.