SLOVYANSK, Ukraine – Pro-Russian insurgents commandeered six Ukrainian armored vehicles and their crews, and hoisted Russian flags over them Wednesday, dampening the central government’s hopes of re-establishing control over restive eastern Ukraine.
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 announced it was immediately strengthening its military footprint along its eastern border – which often lies next to Russia – in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Insurgents in Slovyansk have 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 – and the central government says Moscow is fomenting the unrest.
One of the Ukrainian soldiers said they 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 they were forced at gunpoint 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.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry issued a statement saying Ukrainian troops had entered Kramatorsk, south of Slovyansk, on Wednesday morning, where locals and “members of Russian sabotage groups” seized six armored personnel vehicles and drove them to Slovyansk.
The military said “the whereabouts of the Ukrainian servicemen” were not yet known. The Interfax news agency quoted Miroslav Rudenko, one of the insurgent leaders in Slovyansk, as saying the soldiers will be offered the chance to join a local militia or leave the region.
Eastern Ukraine was the support base for ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after months of protests over his decision to reject closer relations with the European Union and turn instead toward Russia.
Reflecting the West’s concern over the turmoil in Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation and preparations for diplomatic talks Thursday in Geneva on Ukraine. 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 Slovyansk, 100 miles 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 them, who identified himself only as Andrei, said the unit was part of Ukraine’s 25th Brigade of Airborne Forces and 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.”