NATO has called on Russia to cease its «illegal military operations» in eastern Ukraine, which it says are aimed at destabilizing the country.
The comments by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Friday followed an emergency meeting in Brussels to discuss the worsening crisis.
Rasmussen, referencing satellite images released by his organization Thursday, said it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border into eastern Ukraine. He said this is not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern over many months to destabilize Ukraine as a sovereign nation.
Russia has repeatedly denied arming or sending troops to assist the pro-Moscow rebels.
The NATO chief also said Moscow has fired on Ukraine, both from Russia and from within the country itself, where NATO estimates 1,000 Russian troops are operating. It says another 20,000 are marshaled near Ukraine’s border.
Kyiv has asked NATO for support in dealing with the insurgents, who have launched a counteroffensive, allegedly with Moscow’s help, to retake several areas of eastern Ukraine in recent weeks.
Rasmussen said that he will make clear to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, at a world summit next week in Wales, NATO’s «unwavering support» for and «strong solidarity» with Ukraine.
Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said Friday that parliament would be asked to give up the country’s non-aligned status and pursue NATO membership, Reuters reported.
Rasmussen also said NATO was establishing several trust funds to «finance activities that can assist Ukraine» in reforming its armed forces and strengthening their ability to protect the country. Trust funds are being set up in the areas of logistics, command and control, cyberdefense, and military personnel (including medical care).
Earlier this week, Kyiv also arrested at least 10 Russian soldiers who had crossed into Ukraine. Moscow said they had crossed the border accidentally.
The United Nations said Friday nearly 2,600 people have been killed since mid-April. That does not include the nearly 300 people killed when a Malaysian airliner was shot down above the war-torn area.
Fighting has intensified in August, with roughly three dozen people killed daily in eastern Ukraine, according to the U.N.’s assistant secretary-general for human rights.
Ivan Simonovic told the Associated Press: «The armed groups continue to commit abductions, physical and psychological torture, ill treatment and other serious human rights violations. They abduct people for ransom, for forced labor and in order to use them for exchange for their fighters held by the Ukrainian authorities.»
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday called on pro-Moscow separatists to free Ukrainian soldiers that have been surrounded in eastern Ukraine. In a Kremlin statement Friday, he urged the insurgents to «open a humanitarian corridor» for the troops in order to avoid «senseless deaths.»
Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko told Russian media that he is ready to comply with the request, but that the soldiers must first give up their weapons.
For more than a week, rebels have surrounded a group of Ukrainian troops in the town of Ilovaysk, following a rapid, Moscow-backed offensive.
Putin’s statement did not address increasingly pointed accusations by Kyiv and the West that Russia is directly intervening in the insurgency. But he praised the rebellion’s «serious successes in stopping the armed operation by Kyiv,» which he said threatens civilians.
On Thursday, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin had accused the Kyiv government of «waging war against its own people» in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. However, he didn’t deny the involvement of Russian forces there.
In televised remarks Friday at a summer camp in central Russia, Putin told youths there that «Ukrainian authorities must start substantial talks,» Agence France-Presse reported. Such talks would lay out «what rights the people of Donbass, Lugansk, the entire southeast of the country will have.»
But, Putin said, «They don’t want to speak on substance. That is the problem.»
Also Friday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said the United States would continue to work with NATO and its European allies in supporting Ukraine, and will continue providing «nonlethal» aid.
«There’s not going to be a U.S. military solution here,» he told CNN.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama had accused Moscow of «deliberately and repeatedly» violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity. He warned that Moscow will likely face additional economic sanctions from the West.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power used even more forceful language to condemn Russia. At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Power said Moscow has «outright lied» about its involvement in Ukraine.
The latest Russian moves along Ukraine’s southeastern frontier have raised international concerns that Moscow wants to create a land link between Russia and Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in March.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said if the reports of a Russian troop presence are true, they mark a «dangerous escalation» in Ukraine’s crisis. He said the international community cannot allow the situation to escalate further.
Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday that if Russian armed forces had moved into eastern Ukraine, then it was an «invasion and it is utterly represensible.»
«You cannot have a safe and secure world if powerful countries are able to take what they want,» Abbott told reporters in Canberra.
«… It seems that Russia is now stepping out of the shadows and overtly trying to achieve its objects of domination in Ukraine,» Abbott said, «and it is completely, absolutely and utterly unacceptable.»