SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — The well-armed, Moscow-backed insurgency sowing chaos in eastern Ukraine scored a new victory Wednesday, seizing armored vehicles and weapons from underequipped government forces, then rolling through two cities to a hero’s welcome.
Responding to what it sees as Russia’s aggression, NATO announced it was increasing its military presence along its eastern border, closest to Russia and Ukraine. And the Obama administration moved to ratchet up its response, preparing new sanctions on Russia and boosted assistance for the struggling Ukrainian military.
Wednesday’s setbacks came just 24 hours after a much-touted Ukrainian army operation to retake control of Solvyansk and other cities in the restive east, and appeared to reflect growing indecisiveness by the new Kiev leadership, which has vowed for days to re-establish its authority there.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops deployed along the border with Ukraine, there are fears the Kremlin might use the instability in the predominantly Russian-speaking region as a pretext for seizing more territory beyond its annexation of Crimea last month.
The day began with throngs of residents in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, some 10 miles (15 kilometers) south of Slovyansk, encircling a column of Ukrainian armored vehicles carrying several dozen troops. Soon after, masked gunmen in combat gear, wearing the black-and-orange St. George ribbons distinguishing them as pro-Russian militia, reached the site.
Without offering resistance, the Ukrainian soldiers surrendered the vehicles to the militiamen, who sat atop them as they drove them into Slovyansk, Russian flags fluttering in the breeze.
They were greeted by a cheering crowd of some 1,000 people that, although numerous, did not necessarily represent the views of the entire city of 130,000.
One Ukrainian soldier said they had defected to the pro-Russian side, but another suggested they were forced at gunpoint to hand over the vehicles.