Alec Luhn — The Guardian August 6, 2014
The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, has said that the possibility of Russia deploying military forces in Ukraine has risen, as western officials said Moscow has begun a new troop buildup on its border.
“We have reasons to suspect – we have been receiving such information in the last several hours – that the risk of a direct intervention is higher than it was several days ago,” Tusk told a press conference on Wednesday.
The deployments came as Ukrainian government forces advanced on rebel strongholds in the east.
Russia’s defence ministry has announced large-scale war games near its border with Ukraine that will involve about 100 fighter jets, helicopters and bombers, further heightening tensions in the region.
The Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, said on Tuesday that Russia had concentrated troops and military hardware on Ukraine’s border “to exert pressure or to enter”, and the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said the forces were “very capable and very ready” for an invasion.
Nato officials said 20,000 Russian troops were gathered on the border, with 8,000 deployed in the last week. A Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, put the figure higher, at 45,000 soldiers accompanied by tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery and rocket launchers.
Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” has been pressing ahead with its offensive against the pro-Russia rebels. Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, said on Tuesday that his forces had retaken three-quarters of previously contested territory over the last two months. At least 1,500 civilians and fighters have been killed.
Ukrainian troops are currently trying to retake the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, and residents reported hearing air strikes overnight.
Fighting has been ongoing elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, and as a result the international team investigating the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was only able to work at the crash site for two hours on Tuesday.
This spring, Russia massed about 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s border before Vladimir Putin announced a withdrawal in May. Kiev has claimed its forces have regularly come under fire from Russian territory, although shells have also reportedly landed on the Russian side.
The independent defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said Russia had supplied more serious weapons to the rebels and trained its own special forces near the border in response to the Ukrainian advance. Russian media reports have suggested the rebels now have TOS-1 tank-mounted rocket launchers, which can shoot two dozen fuel bombs in quick succession.
“Right now Russia’s introducing powerful weapons that can cause mass casualties and destruction of Ukrainian troops, hoping that will stop the Ukrainian offensive,” Felgenhauer said. “If the fall of Donetsk and Lugansk and Novorossiya seems imminent, then Russia could intervene covertly, with special forces and air support and more powerful weapons. I would believe that’s right now in the cards.” Novorossiya or “New Russia” is a term used by supporters of Moscow for the regions in southern and eastern Ukraine.
A large-scale troop intervention would be a last resort, Felgenhauer said.
On Monday, 438 Ukrainian troops entered Russian territory, where some have been put up in a tent camp. Moscow said the troops had sought asylum, while Kiev said they were forced to flee into Russian territory after running out of ammunition.