SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) — A column of armored vehicles flying Russian flags drove into a Ukrainian city controlled by pro-Russian insurgents Wednesday, dampening the central government’s hopes of re-establishing control over restive eastern Ukraine.
Still, it was far from clear just who these mostly masked men were and what their presence meant for eastern Ukraine, which has seen a surge of support for closer ties with Russia and against the new government in Kiev, which wants closer links to Europe.
Troops in camouflage sat atop the six vehicles as they entered the city of Slovyansk, a hotbed of unrest against Ukraine’s interim government.
Insurgents in Slovyansk last weekend seized the police headquarters 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 men on the vehicles in Slovyansk said they were Ukrainian soldiers who had defected to the pro-Russian side — which raises the specter of an uprising led by disgruntled Ukrainian forces.
But an AP journalist overheard another soldier suggesting that they were forced to hand over the vehicles.
“How was I supposed to behave if I had guns pointed at me?” the soldier, who did not identify himself, asked a resident.
Breaking hours of silence, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry issued a statement saying Ukrainian troops had entered Kramatorsk, south of Slovyansk, on Wednesday morning. There residents and “members of Russian sabotage groups” seized six armored personnel vehicles and drove them to Slovyansk.
The military insisted the armed men seen on APCs in Slovyansk were not Ukrainian forces but added “the whereabouts of the Ukrainian servicemen” had yet to be established.
Eastern Ukraine was the support base for ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after months of protests over his decision to back away from closer relations with the European Union and turn toward Russia. Opponents of the government that replaced him fear the new authorities will repress eastern Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking population.
Reflecting the West’s concern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir Putin late Tuesday to discuss the situation in Ukraine and preparations for diplomatic talks in Geneva on Thursday.
The Kremlin said Putin told Merkel that “the sharp escalation of the conflict places the country in effect on the verge of a civil war.” Merkel’s office said she and Putin had “different assessments” of the events in Ukraine.
In Brussels, NATO announced it was immediately strengthening its military footprint along its eastern border — which often borders Russia — in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region and allied ships will deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere if needed.
“We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land,” Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels, declining to give exact troop figures.
NATO says Russia has up to 40,000 troops stationed near the border with Ukraine. Western nations and the new government in Kiev fear that Moscow will use unrest in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for a military invasion.
In Slovyansk, a city 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the border with Russia, the armored vehicles stopped near a government building and flew Russian flags while residents chanted “Good job! Good job!”
One of the men on the vehicles, who identified himself only as Andrei, said the unit was part of Ukraine’s 25th Brigade of Airborne Forces and that they had switched to the pro-Russian side.
“Our bosses made the decision and we obeyed,” he said.
His statement couldn’t be independently confirmed.
Some onlookers were happy with the pro-Russian forces.
“We will never allow the fascist Kiev authorities to come here,” said Andrei Bondar, 32, a Slovyansk resident.
But Tetyana Kustova, a 35-year-old sales clerk, was appalled by the unrest.
“They are pushing us toward Russia,” she said. “They are tearing Ukraine into pieces.”
Later Wednesday, several hundred residents surrounded 14 Ukrainian armored vehicles at the train station in Pchyolkino, south of Slovyansk, fearing that the troops were sent to quell them. A Ukrainian who introduced himself as a general addressed the crowd, asking them to let the vehicles leave, but residents blocked them in.
Dmytro, a Ukrainian solder who gave only his first name, vowed that he would remain loyal to the Ukrainian state.
“I took an oath to serve Ukraine,” Dmytro said. “I will not betray my oath.”
In the eastern regional capital of Donetsk, armed militias seized the mayor’s office, demanding that the Kiev government agree to hold a vote on broadening the region’s autonomy.
“We have come into this building so that Kiev accepts our demands, the demands of the ordinary people of Donbass, to adopt a law on local referendums,” said militiaman Alexander Zakharchenko.
In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest.
“Russia has got a new export now, apart from oil and gas: Russia is now exporting terrorism to Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk told a Cabinet meeting. “Russia must withdraw its sabotage groups, condemn terrorists and liberate all administrative buildings.”
Russian markets have been rattled by the tensions between Moscow and Ukraine, where Russia annexed the Black Sea region of Crimea last month.
The Russian economy slowed sharply in the first three months of the year as spooked investors pulled money out of the country.
Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev told parliament that growth was only 0.8 percent in the first quarter — far short of the ministry’s earlier prediction of 2.5 percent — because of “the acute international situation of the past two months” as well as “serious capital flight.”
The main stock index in Moscow tanked 10 percent in March, wiping out billions in market capitalization. In the first three months of 2014, the ruble lost 9 percent against the dollar, making imports more expensive, while spooked investors pulled about $70 billion out of the country — more than in all of 2013.
Associated Press writers Peter Leonard in Donetsk, Maria Danilova and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Laura Mills in Moscow and Juergen Baetz and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.