NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is calling on the country to resist giving into panic in the wake of Russian forces entering the country.
Poroshenko called an urgent session of the national security council on Thursday. Security officials said two columns of tanks entered the country's southeast earlier in the day.
"Destabilization of the situation and panic, this is as much of a weapon of the enemy as tanks," Poroshenko told the security council, according to the Interfax news agency.
Two columns of Russian tanks and military vehicles fired Grad missiles from Russia at a border post in southeastern Ukraine, then rolled into the country Thursday as its overmatched border guards fled, a top Ukrainian official said.
The comments by Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council, and other statements from NATO, the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and the United States left no doubt that the Russian military had invaded southeastern Ukraine.
A top NATO official said at least 1,000 Russian troops have poured into Ukraine with sophisticated equipment and have been in direct "contact" with Ukrainian soldiers, resulting in casualties.
"Russian forces have entered Ukraine," Ukraine's president declared Thursday, cancelling a foreign trip and calling an emergency meeting of his security council.
President Petro Poroshenko summoned the council as the strategic southeastern town of Novoazovsk appeared firmly under the control of separatists and their Russian backers, a new front in the war in eastern Ukraine between the separatists and Poroshenko's government in Kiev.
"Today the president's place is in Kiev," Poroshenko said.
Russian stock markets dived as fears grew that the country was escalating its role in the conflict, a move that could provoke the U.S. and European Union to impose further sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals. Russia's MICEX index dropped nearly 2 percent on Thursday, and major Russian state banks VTB and Sberbank dropped more than 4 percent.
Brig. Gen. Nico Tak told reporters at NATO headquarters that the ultimate aim of Russia was to stave off defeat for the separatists and turn eastern Ukraine into a "frozen conflict" that would destabilize the country "indefinitely."
NATO estimated that another 20,000 Russian troops were right over the Russian border.
Tak said the 1,000 Russian troops operating inside Ukraine was a conservative estimate and provided satellite imaginary showing an incursion of great sophistication. He refused to specify exactly what the "contact" with Ukrainian troops was.
Lysenko said the missiles from Russia were fired about 11 a.m. and about 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 of the Rostov region in Russia.
The leader of the insurgency, Alexander Zakharchenko, said in an interview on Russian state television that 3,000 to 4,000 Russians have fought on the separatist side since the armed conflict began in April.
The U.S. government accused Russia of orchestrating a new military campaign in Ukraine, helping rebel forces expand their fight and sending in tanks, rocket launchers and armored vehicles.
"These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway in Donetsk and Luhansk," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. She voiced concern about overnight deliveries of materiel in southeast Ukraine near Novoazovsk and said Russia was being dishonest about its actions, even to its own people.
Russian forces, she said, are being sent 30 miles (48 kilometers) inside Ukraine, without them or their families knowing where they are going. She cited reports of burials in Russia for those who have died in Ukraine and wounded Russian soldiers being treated in a St. Petersburg hospital.