NATO is to deploy more air, sea and land forces in eastern Europe, as pro-Russian militants are accused of taking two Ukrainian soldiers “hostage”.
The incident allegedly occurred in the separatist eastern region of Lugansk.
The ministry said an officer and a soldier were seized by “extremists” and taken to an unknown destination after they pulled over near the town of Krasnyi Luch to repair their vehicle.
“Today we have agreed a package of military measures,” NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Wednesday after a meeting of all 28 members of the transatlantic alliance.
“We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water … and more readiness on the land,” he said, adding that NATO defence plans would be “reviewed and reinforced.”
Rasmussen refused to detail what new forces would be deployed and where but said they would result in increased air sorties over the Baltic Sea, while additional ships would go there and to the eastern Mediterranean.
The decision will be implemented “immediately” and there will be more to come, he added.
He repeated calls for Russia “to be part of the solution” in Ukraine, to stop the destabilisation of its Soviet era satellite, pull back its troops from the border and to make clear it “does not support” extremists.
Asked what bearing the decision could have on EU-US talks with Russia and Ukraine in Geneva on Thursday, Rasmussen said: “We have taken military steps which we think are necessary to enhance deterrence.”
At the same time, “we agree that a political solution is the only way forward,” he said.
At least three unmarked armoured personnel carriers bearing the Russian flag have driven through the eastern Ukraine town of Kramatorsk today, a day after authorities in Kiev launched an operation to oust pro-Moscow separatists.
Dozens of armed men in camouflage were seated on top of the vehicles as they drove through the town accompanied by a military truck, an AFP photographer said.
Ukraine’s Western-backed prime minister has accused Russia of erecting a new “Berlin Wall” that threatened European security.
“Today’s events… are starting to endanger Europe and the European Union. It is now clear that our Russian neighbours have decided to build a new Berlin Wall and return to the Cold War era,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a government meeting.
Pro-Russian forces in Ukraine have “shoot to kill” orders.
The development comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin has told the German chancellor in a phone call that Ukraine is on the verge of civil war, and blamed Kiev for the situation.
But both Mr Putin and Angela Merkel “emphasised the importance” of the planned four-way talks on Ukraine tomorrow between top diplomats of Russia, the European Union, the US and Ukraine.
The Kremlin has described the actions of the Ukrainian army in the country’s east as anti-constitutional.
Mr Putin also told Ms Merkel about the importance of stabilising the Ukrainian economy and ensuring that supplies of Russian gas to Europe are not interrupted.
Kiev’s leaders ordered troops and tanks towards a flashpoint eastern city to push back a separatist surge supported by Moscow.
The 20 tanks and armoured personnel carriers were the most forceful response yet by Kiev’s Western-backed government to armed raids by pro-Kremlin militants and the occupation of state buildings in nearly 10 cities across Ukraine’s rust belt.
Ukrainian forces set up a cement road barrier and begun checking traffic leading to Slavyansk, an economically depressed industrial city of 100,000 that has been under effective control of separatist gunmen since Saturday.
“They must be warned that if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed,” Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) General Vasyl Krutov told a group of reporters tracking the sudden tank movements.
He insisted that the militants had been reinforced by several hundred soldiers from the Russian army’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).
Witnesses told AFP that at least two Ukrainian military helicopters landed in the nearby town of Kramatorsk with reinforcements for the offensive.
Kiev’s response to the eastern insurgency prompted Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to warn that “Ukraine is on the brink of civil war – it’s frightening”.
He urged Ukraine’s “de-facto” authorities – not recognised by Moscow – to avert “terrible turmoil”.
The rapid turn of events on the ground were preceded by a telephone conversation late Monday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama on Ukraine that was described as “frank and direct”.
The call, though, appeared to break no new ground.
The Kremlin chief continued to reject any links to Russian-speaking gunmen who have proclaimed the creation of their own independent republic, and who have called on Putin to send in the estimated 40,000 Russian troops now stationed along the border with Ukraine.
But the White House said Obama accused Moscow of supporting “armed pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilise the government of Ukraine”.
The worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War was exacerbated on the weekend by a Russian warplane “buzzing” a US destroyer in the Black Sea, and a visit to Kiev by CIA chief John Brennan that was confirmed by the White House and slammed by Moscow.
European foreign ministers meanwhile held back on unleashing punishing economic sanctions against Russia in hopes that EU-US mediated talks on Thursday in Geneva between Moscow and Kiev could help de-escalate the situation.