BRUSSELS -- NATO's top official says the alliance will finalize a package to reform and modernize Ukraine's armed forces following Russia's annexation of the ex-Soviet republic's Crimea territory.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made the announcement on June 3 following a meeting of defense ministers from NATO's 28 member countries in Brussels.
"In the weeks to come we will finalize a comprehensive package of long-term measures to make Ukraine's reforms more effective and its armed forces stronger," he said.
Rasmussen declined to give details about the measures under consideration, but said he was encouraged that in addition to NATO assistance, individual members of the alliance have volunteered advisory and technical assistance, as well as material support, to Ukraine.
A final decision on the assistance package will be made when NATO foreign ministers meet later this month.
"All in all, you will see a very strong commitment from NATO and NATO allies to help support Ukraine," Rasmussen said.
The Ukraine crisis has assumed center stage at this week's summit, where Rasmussen and other NATO officials have reiterated their position that the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea in March presents the most serious security threat to the Euro-Atlantic community since the end of the Cold War.
Rasmussen said the defense ministers agreed to bolster the alliance's defense capabilities, in part by stepping up its activities across the European continent.
"We agreed that we will continue to reinforce NATO's collective defense with more air and sea patrols and more exercises and training from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean," he said.
The potential deployment of permanent troops to NATO's eastern-most allies in response to the Ukraine crisis has drawn considerable attention in Brussels this week.
Both the U.S. ambassador to the alliance and a senior NATO official said on June 2 that the defense ministers would discuss the possibility of such deployments in member countries formerly controlled by the Soviet Union, a move Moscow considers in violation of a 1997 cooperation deal between NATO and Russia.
Rasmussen insisted that "all the steps we are going to take will be possible to realize within the framework of the NATO-Russia Founding Act from 1997."
A senior NATO official said earlier this week that a key phrase in the agreement could be reinterpreted by the alliance to allow "substantial" NATO forces to be stationed "permanently" in member states on its eastern borders.
The same official said Russia had chosen to "rip up the rule book" by invading neighboring Ukraine but that NATO preferred to stick to the tenets of the 1997 deal, a position that Rasmussen echoed.
"Russia is in a blatant breach of the fundamental principles of the NATO-Russia Founding Act from 1997, including having violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine," he said.
"But we stick to the NATO-Russia Founding Act because NATO allies want strongly a rules-based international security system. And we do believe that the fundamental principles in the NATO-Russia Founding Act serve the overall security of the Euro-Atlantic area," he added.
Rasmussen also praised U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement earlier in the day that Washington plans to boost its military presence in Europe with additional equipment and troops, and that he has asked the U.S. Congress to approve up to $1 billion to finance the initiative.
"This is a timely and important contribution that reinforces the steps NATO has already taken," he said.
Also on June 3, the NATO defense ministers met with Ukraine's acting defense minister, Mykhaylo Koval, under the auspices of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. They are slated to speak with Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania on June 4 in a meeting of the NATO-Georgia Commission.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, there have been fresh clashes between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia separatists around the eastern city of Slovyansk.
Defense Ministry spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said two soldiers were killed and 42 wounded in the fighting on June 3.
He said around 300 separatists were killed or wounded. The figure could not be independently confirmed.
Ukraine's prosecutor-general said a total of 181 people, including 59 servicemen, had been killed by "terrorist activity" since hostilities broke out in April.
The fighting in Slovyansk followed a daylong firefight in Luhansk on June 2 where separatists attacked a border guard camp.
Meanwhile, local officials said eight people were killed in an explosion in the city center of Luhansk on June 2.
The separatists said the blast came from a Ukrainian air strike, but the Ukrainian military said it was caused by a missile misfired by the insurgents.
With reporting by Reuters and UNIAN