Two columns of tanks and military vehicles rolled into southeastern Ukraine from Russia on Thursday after Grad missiles were fired at a border post and Ukraine's overmatched border guards fled, a top Ukrainian official said.
NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine — Two columns of tanks and military vehicles rolled into southeastern Ukraine from Russia on Thursday after Grad missiles were fired at a border post and Ukraine's overmatched border guards fled, a top Ukrainian official said.
Echoing the comments by Ukrainian Col. Andriy Lysenko, a senior NATO official said at least 1,000 Russian troops have poured into Ukraine with sophisticated equipment, leaving no doubt that the Russian military had invaded southeastern Ukraine.
"The hand from behind is becoming more and more overt now," Brig. Gen. Nico Tak said at NATO's military headquarters, adding that Russia's ultimate aim was to stave off defeat for the separatists and turn eastern Ukraine into a "frozen conflict" that would destabilize the country indefinitely.
"An invasion is an invasion is an invasion," tweeted the Lithuanian ambassador to the U.N., Raimonda Murmokaite.
The U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Thursday afternoon.
"Russian forces have entered Ukraine," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said, canceling a foreign trip and calling an emergency meeting of the country's security council. "Today the president's place is in Kiev."
Poroshenko urged his citizens to resist giving into panic.
"Destabilization of the situation and panic, this is as much of a weapon of the enemy as tanks," Poroshenko told the security council.
As Poroshenko spoke, the strategic southeastern town of Novoazovsk appeared firmly under the control of separatists and their Russian backers, a new, third front in the war in eastern Ukraine between the separatists and Poroshenko's government in Kiev.
Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told the BBC that "NATO has never produced a single piece of evidence" of Russian troops operating in Ukraine. He said the only Russian soldiers in Ukraine were the 10 captured this week, who Moscow insists had mistakenly wandered across the border.
The Russian Defense Ministry didn't directly deny its troops were in Ukraine, but said the list of Russian military units said to be operating in Ukraine had no relation to reality.
Lysenko said the missiles from Russia were fired at Ukrainian positions in the southeast about 11 a.m. and an hour and a half later, two columns, including tanks and other fighting vehicles, began an attack. They entered Ukraine from Veselo-Voznesenka and Maximovo in the Rostov region of Russia.
Russian stock markets dived as Switzerland joined the European Union in imposing restrictions on Russian state banks and fears grew that the U.S. and EU could impose further sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals in response to the military escalation. Russia's MICEX index dropped nearly 2 percent on Thursday, and major Russian state banks VTB and Sberbank dropped more than 4 percent.
"Over the past two weeks we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia's military interference in Ukraine," Tak said in Casteau, Belgium. "Russia is reinforcing and resupplying separatist forces in a blatant attempt to change the momentum of the fighting, which is currently favoring the Ukrainian military."
He said the 1,000 Russian troops was a conservative estimate and said another 20,000 Russian troops were right over the border.
NATO also produced satellite images to provide what it called additional evidence that Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, are operating inside Ukraine's sovereign territory.
"This is highly sophisticated weaponry that requires well-trained crews, well-trained command and control elements, and it is extremely unlikely that this sort of equipment is used by volunteers," Tak said.
Moscow has described the Russian citizens fighting with the separatists as volunteers.