NATO is ready to provide Ukraine with support as the country faces growing military aggression from Russia, the alliance's leader has said. Kyiv has grown concerned over the build up of Russian forces near the border.
In a meeting on Thursday, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen reassured senior Ukrainian officials that the country would not have to face the threat of Russia's military alone.
"NATO ... stands ready to support Ukraine," Rasmussen told reporters in Kyiv.
"It is the right of every country to choose its own foreign policy without foreign interference. NATO fully respects that right, but today Ukraine's freedom and future are under attack," he added.
Both Ukrainian and Western leaders have accused Russia of providing support to separatists since the beginning of their armed uprising in spring.
The standoff escalated in July, when the rebels allegedly shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Western leaders have accused Russia of providing the separatists with the technology capable of such an attack.
In response to the situation, NATO would be "planning more joint exercises, more cooperation, and more shared training and education ... [as well as] long-term assistance to modernize the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian security sector," Rasmussen said.
NATO began increasing its presence in its east European partner countries following Russia's annexation of Crimea in the spring. But, because Ukraine is not a member of the alliance, NATO cannot provide it with the same military support.
Talks on Ukraine are set to take place next month during NATO's summit in Wales.
Russia 'destabilizing' Ukraine
Earlier this week, NATO warned of a buildup of some 20,000 Russian troops along the border near Ukraine.
On Thursday, Rasmussen called on Russia to withdraw the soldiers and reverse its course of diplomacy and accused the country of suggesting a humanitarian mission as a pretext for intervention.
"Instead of de-escalating the conflict, Russia continues to destabilize Ukraine," Rasmussen said, citing signs that the country's support for the separatists had grown "in scale and sophistication."
"I urge Russia to follow the genuine path to peace, to pull back troops from the border," Rasmussen said.
Despite the levying of sanctions by the EU and the US, Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to reign in his influence in eastern Ukraine, even denying the extent of his government's interference in the conflict. Putin decided instead this week to restrict the import of most EU food and agricultural products in retribution for the attempts to weaken Russia's economy.
In a statement announcing the yearlong sanctions, Moscow reported that officials were also considering banning European airlines from flying through Russian airspace.
kms/mkg (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)