Masked pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine seized armored vehicles from the Ukrainian army Wednesday, in a humiliating blow to Ukrainian efforts to recapture towns controlled by pro-Moscow partisans.
The Ukrainian soldiers in the vehicles near Slovyansk mounted no resistance, allowing the partisans to mount Russian flags on the vehicles and drive them into the city, where they were greeted by cheering supporters. There were also reports of some Ukrainian soldiers switching sides, once confronted by the Moscow loyalists.
Witnesses say a second armored Ukrainian column moving toward Slovyansk was stopped by a crowd blocking the roadway. Western journalists say the Ukrainian occupants were only allowed to retreat after disabling their firearms.
Russian-speaking insurgents in nine Ukrainian cities near the Russian border are demanding broader autonomy from the Kyiv government and a referendum on whether to quit Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.
Russia backed a similar referendum last month in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, where the largely ethnic-Russian population voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
Russia annexed the peninsula days later, sparking protests from a host of Western governments as well as U.S. and European sanctions against Moscow.
Wednesday's military setbacks cast Kyiv in a weakened position on the eve of emergency four-party talks aimed at defusing the crisis, which Kyiv and a host of Western governments are squarely blaming on the Kremlin.
U.S. diplomats say the talks in Geneva are expected to cover de-escalation, demobilization, constitutional reform, and preparation for Ukraine's May 25 presidential election. A State Department spokeswoman also said the United States is preparing new sanctions against Moscow if the unrest in Ukraine continues.
For its part, the Kremlin has accused the government in Kyiv of pursuing an "anti-constitutional" path by using force against the pro-Russian demonstrators in eastern Ukraine. It has also threatened to abandon the Geneva talks if Ukrainian forces attack separatists holding government buildings in the eastern Ukraine cities.
Elsewhere, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday the 28-nation defense alliance has decided on a series of immediate steps in response to Russia's moves to destabilize Ukraine. Rasmussen, speaking in Brussels, said the moves will include boosting air and naval presence in the Baltic Sea and eastern Mediterranean.