Ukrainian media reported that pro-Russian militias had commandeered the vehicles from the Ukrainian Army and driven them to the central square in Slovyansk, about 120 miles from the Russian border.
A crowd gathered to gape at the squat, tracked vehicles and at the red, white and blue flag of Russia flapping in the breeze.
About 100 soldiers in unmarked green uniforms and bearing the equipment of professional infantry guarded the vehicles, but they showed no signs of allegiance other than the single flag.
Some of the soldiers had grenade launchers slung over their shoulders.
If the vehicles were indeed seized from the Ukrainian Army, it was not immediately clear whether they had been taken by force or with the collusion of defecting Ukrainian troops.
Either possibility, however, would signal an escalation by Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine.
Tsenzor.net, a Ukrainian news website, reported that militants seized the vehicles in a neighboring town, Kramatorsk, where the Ukrainians landed paratroopers Tuesday to secure an airfield, in what was intended to be a show of force.
The Ukrainian general who commanded the military operation, Vasily Krutov, stood near armored personnel carriers outside the town and warned loudly that gunmen who did not surrender their weapons would be “destroyed.”
It was unclear whether the vehicles that were used Wednesday were from this same contingent.
In Brussels, the head of NATO said Wednesday that the alliance would strengthen its military presence along its eastern border in response to the developments in Ukraine.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary general, said that NATO would immediately send forces to the region as a deterrent.
He did not specify how many troops or aircraft would be involved or what kind of assets would be deployed.
Earlier this month, the alliance ordered an end to most military cooperation with Russia because of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its threatening military posture near eastern Ukraine.
In the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, Parliament met in a closed session Wednesday morning with the heads of the Ukrainian military and security forces.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, government supporters and the police set up roadblocks outside the city of Odessa.
Journalists were told that the roadblocks had been established to prevent Russian militants from entering the city and completing an arc of uprising from the east through the south of Ukraine, in the country’s predominantly Russian-speaking areas.
In Slovyansk, the armored vehicles flying a Russian flag entered the town through a main checkpoint, coming from the direction of Kramatorsk, where they were reportedly seized, rather than from the highway to the border.
They rumbled through the city and parked outside City Hall.
“People say these are the people’s militia,” one woman said, referring to the uniformed men carrying weapons that clearly had not been obtained from the town’s captured police station.
“I don’t know these people. They are not locals.”
“I think we’ll live with the Russians now,” said another spectator near the armored vehicles, which resembled tanks.
The degree of support for seceding from Ukraine in the east is a matter of dispute.
Surveys indicate that a minority supports secession from Ukraine, while more favor greater autonomy within Ukraine, the position supported by the Russian government.
Talks between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States are scheduled for Thursday in Geneva.
The crowd on the central plaza of Slovyansk appeared stunned by the presence of the armed soldiers.
Breaking the silence, one woman yelled “Russia! Russia!” but the crowd did not take up the chant.
Source: The New York Times