Russia has sharply increased the number of troops and vehicles positioned on the eastern border of Ukraine in the past few days, raising fears of an invasion to stop the Ukrainian army’s recent advances against pro-Russian separatists.
Moscow has around 20,000 troops deployed in battle-ready formations on the border, according to senior Nato military officers – significantly more than the 15,000 US officials said were deployed there last week.
While the number is still well below the 40,000 Russian troops deployed near Ukraine in April, the sharp rise in just a few days has been a cause for significant concern among Western military powers.
According to US officials, the Russian troop deployments are also now much closer to the Ukrainian border – all within 50km – than in previous instances.
The battalions that have been deployed are predominantly those which have been at the forefront of a sweeping modernisation programme undertaken by Russia’s military in recent years and are among the best equipped and trained in the Russian army.
Those present include elite spetsnaz forces, armoured brigades and artillery and anti-aircraft units.
The troops are spread along the length of the border with Ukraine. As with previous Russian deployments along the border, the Kremlin has been careful to ensure that no single out-of-base concentration exceeds a limit of 9,000 stipulated under the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s 2011 Vienna Document.
Ukraine on Tuesday called on Russia to halt its build-up of forces along its border as fears mounted that Moscow could invade to prevent the advancing army of its southern neighbour from finishing off pro-Russian separatists increasingly encircled and bunkered down in eastern Ukraine’s largest cities ahead of a final showdown.
“Ukraine considers the conducting of such unprecedented military exercises on the border with Ukraine as a provocation,” said Col. Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian army spokesperson.
Russian officials have for weeks hinted at the need for peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine to halt bloodshed among the civilian population but which Kiev regards as a pretext for direct Russian intervention in the conflict.
Accused by Kiev and the West of funnelling rebels and heavy arms to the separatist militants, Russia has explained the border military build-up as training exercises.
Kiev claims there are some 15,000 separatist militants in the east of Ukraine which it says are being supplied with heavy arms by Moscow, including the Buk surface-to-air missile the US and EU allege was used to shoot down a Malaysia passenger airliner last month, killing all 298 on board.
Kiev has also repeatedly accused Moscow’s forces stationed at the border of firing artillery and surface-to-surface missiles at local troops from Russian territory to bolster the separatists’ hand in battles that have been raging since April.
Such attacks and fears that Russia could entertain a full-blown military incursion have increased in past weeks as Ukraine’s military has made gains in its military campaign against the rebels.
Addressing security officials on Tuesday, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, praised the country’s armed forces for “heroic” efforts in past weeks in liberating three-quarters of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions previously held by separatist militants.
Mr Lysenko said Ukraine’s forces were undergoing “major preparations” to liberate the two largest regional capitals in far-eastern breakaway regions, Donetsk with its population of 1m and Lugansk, home to some 400,000. He stressed that efforts would be made to minimise civilian casualties and infrastructure damage but refused to give any details of the operation.
Residents in Donetsk on Tuesday were urged to avoid the Petrovsky district where battles and explosions were reported. Citing a statement by the office of Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, the mayor of Donetsk who fled the city for safety reasons weeks ago, news agency Interfax-Ukraine also reported periodic gunfire and explosions from artillery in other parts of the city.
Meanwhile, Russia said the situation in the east of Ukraine was on the verge of a “humanitarian disaster” and that it had been in discussions with agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross to co-ordinate a response to the situation. However, Moscow said the authorities in Kiev refused to recognise the humanitarian problems in the southeast of Ukraine which it called “irresponsible”.
The UN refugee agency said on Tuesday that 117,000 people were displaced inside Ukraine.
Russia also called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday over the humanitarian situation in Ukraine.
“We are calling an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council over the humanitarian situation in Ukraine,” the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin as saying. He added that Russia hoped the meeting would take place later on Tuesday.
Fearing the prospect of bloody urban warfare between Ukraine’s army and separatists that are also armed with tanks and other heavy ammunition, scores of residents in the heavily-populated cities have already left. Police fled from the once lively cosmopolitan streets months ago and today they are largely abandoned.
Hundreds of civilians have died in eastern Ukrainian cities amid gunfire and shelling that Ukrainian and separatist forces have accused each other of conducting.
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