By Adrian Croft
LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) – Russia is deeply involved in the crisis in eastern Ukraine where pro-Moscow separatists have seized control of a number of government buildings, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Tuesday.
The frank remarks from the head of the western military alliance underline rising tensions with Moscow, which says it is not involved in the armed pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine.
Asked if he had seen evidence of Russian involvement in events in eastern Ukraine, Rasmussen told reporters: "We never … comment on intelligence, but I think from what is visible, it is very clear that Russia's hand is deeply engaged in this."
Relations between NATO and Russia have turned icy since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region last month. NATO, accusing Russia of massing forces on Ukraine's border, has also suspended cooperation with Moscow.
Rasmussen, in Luxembourg for talks with European Union defense ministers, called on Russia to "de-escalate the crisis, to pull back its troops from Ukraine's borders, to stop destabilizing the situation in Ukraine and make clear that it doesn't support the violent actions of pro-Russian separatists."
"Russia should stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution."
Rasmussen said NATO was not discussing any military involvement in non-NATO member Ukraine and was focusing on strengthening the defenses of eastern European allies nervous about Russia's intentions.
NATO ambassadors are expected on Wednesday to discuss options put forward by military planners for reinforcing the defenses of eastern allies through exercises and temporary deployments of planes and ships sent by other allies.
In his talks with EU defense ministers, Rasmussen said he would call for stronger cooperation between NATO and the EU, proposing that the military rapid reaction forces that both organizations maintain should train and exercise together more often.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Giles Elgood)