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More Russian troops massed near Ukraine than before 2014 invasion, Pentagon says

Armor troops of the Russian Southern Military District sprint to their tanks during training in March 2021. The Pentagon says Russia's military presence around Ukraine is now larger than the force used during Moscow's 2014 invasion of that country.

RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 20, 2021

STUTTGART, Germany — Russia’s military presence along the border with Ukraine is larger than the force used during Moscow’s 2014 invasion of that country, the Pentagon said this week as tensions in the region continue to escalate.

“We do continue to see that buildup,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday. “We call on the Russians to cease their provocations and to contribute to better security and stability there. And they can start by being more transparent about what their intentions are and what they’re doing.”

The size of the force along Ukraine’s borders “is certainly bigger” than in 2014, Kirby said, although he refused to speculate on the number of Russian troops in the region.

Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in early 2014, and later that year sent troops into eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists. Despite Kyiv and Moscow agreeing to numerous cease-fires, the war in the east of Ukraine escalated sharply last month, when four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in fighting in the Donetsk region.

The European Union on Monday put the size of the Russian force near Ukraine at “more than 100,000.”

“The risk of further escalation is evident,” EU foreign affairs chief Joseph Borrell told reporters in Brussels.

The Russian presence is “the highest military deployment of the Russian army in the Ukrainian borders, ever,” Borrell said. He initially estimated there were about 150,000 troops near the border, but the EU adjusted that figure downward, to around 100,000.

The buildup coincides with a plan announced last week by Moscow to block the movement of foreign naval ships in and out of the Kerch Strait, a strategic passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, which has been a focal point of tensions in the past.

“This represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement Monday, citing Russia’s recent history of impeding access to Ukraine ports in the area.

In 2018, Russian forces fired on Ukrainian vessels trying to transit the Kerch Strait and took more than 20 Ukrainian sailors prisoner.

In recent weeks, worries about Russia massing forces near Ukraine led U.S. European Command in Stuttgart to raise its threat level for the region from possible crisis to potential imminent crisis.

But EUCOM Chief Gen. Tod Wolters told lawmakers in Washington on Thursday that chances of a new invasion were “low to medium" and the risk could be fading.

“My sense is, with the trend that I see right now, the likelihood of an occurrence will start to wane,” Wolters said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver

Russian Black Sea fleet ships go to sea during the winter training period. The Pentagon says Russia's military presence around Ukraine is now larger than the force used during Moscow's 2014 invasion of that country.
IGOR RUDENKO/RUSSIAN ARMY