Poland said that a renewed buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border raises the specter of a possible invasion, as President Vladimir Putin ordered his government to prepare a response to U.S. and European sanctions.
“Unfortunately, Russia has restored its combat-readiness on the Ukraine border with more than a dozen battalion-sized combat groups,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, told TVN24 BiS television yesterday, while giving no indication that an invasion was imminent. “There’s a lot of equipment. This is the sort of thing one does to exert pressure or to invade.”
Putin has showed no sign of backing down over Ukraine since the U.S. and the European Union tightened sanctions last week, with Russia massing forces on its neighbor’s border in the biggest military buildup since troops were withdrawn from the area in May.
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Ukraine expressed alarm about a new deployment of Russian forces on its frontier as it pressed an offensive against pro- Russian separatists. There’s “active combat taking place” on the outskirts of Donetsk, with two civilians killed, the city council said on its website last night.
The intensifying conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, the UN agency for refugees said.
Russia’s foreign ministry said eastern Ukraine neared a “humanitarian catastrophe” and required immediate international assistance.
Putin said the government has proposed measures to retaliate against sanctions. Russia may limit or ban flights over Siberia by European carriers bound for Asia as a response to sanctions levied against the country, the Moscow-based Vedomosti newspaper reported yesterday, citing people familiar with the matter it didn’t identify.
“Political instruments of pressure on the economy are unacceptable, they contradict all norms and rules,” Putin said yesterday during a meeting with Alexey Gordeev, governor of the Voronezh region near Ukraine. Any retaliation “must be done extremely carefully to support producers and avoid harming consumers.”
Sikorski, whose country is among the EU nations seeking the toughest response to the Kremlin’s policy over Ukraine, said any incursion would be under the guise of a peacekeeping mission.
Estonia, one of the three former Soviet republics in the EU, had warned in March that Putin may be planning to invade Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.
U.S. stocks resumed a selloff yesterday, as energy shares tumbled and concern increased over the escalating tensions in Ukraine. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 1 percent to 1,920.21 at 4 p.m. in New York, the lowest level since May 29.
“You have Polish Minister Sikorski talking about Russian forces poised to pressure or invade Ukraine, and that’s all the buyers needed today to go into hiding,” Lou Shaduk, managing director of equity trading at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore, said in an interview.
Russia has deployed 45,000 soldiers, 160 tanks and as many as 1,360 armored vehicles, a Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, told reporters in Kiev yesterday. There are also 192 Russian warplanes and 137 military helicopters, as well as artillery systems and multiple rocket launchers, he said.
Changing and conflicting estimates of the Russian troop presence near Ukraine depend in part on different assumptions.
While estimates cited by Ukraine include about 20,000 Russian forces in Crimea, those by the U.S. and NATO don’t.
On that basis, Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters yesterday that Russia still has “north of 10,000 troops” on Ukraine’s border, and NATO Deputy Director Alexander Vershbow said in a posting on Twitter that the number is about 20,000.
“The numbers aren’t the key metric here,” Kirby said. “What matters is that they continue to reinforce these units, that they are very capable and very ready across what we call combined arms capabilities -- armor, artillery, air defense, special forces, and that they are closer to the border than they were in the spring.”
Ukraine’s armed forces are pushing ahead with their campaign after the U.S. and the EU increased pressure on Putin over his backing of the rebels with an expansion of sanctions. Last month’s downing of Malaysia Air Flight MH17, which the U.S. says was probably caused by a missile fired by the insurgents, has helped harden attitudes against Russia. The rebels and Putin’s government blame Ukrainian forces.
More than 1,000 people have died in the fighting so far. While Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the conflict, the U.S. and its EU allies blame Putin for failing to rein in the insurgency and stop the war.
The pro-Russian separatist forces, which now number about 15,000, up from 300 when the conflict started, hold less than half the territory they did four weeks ago, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Geletey said in a BBC interview broadcast this week. More than 65 towns and villages in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine have been retaken, he said.
About half of Luhansk’s 465,000 inhabitants have evacuated the city amid continuing fighting, city council spokesman Oleksandr Savenko told Channel 112 television. The remaining 250,000 people are unable or unwilling to leave the rebel stronghold, he said.
“People are fleeing eastern Ukraine with limited belongings and increasing difficulties,” Vincent Cochetel, director of the UN Refugee Agency’s Europe bureau, said at a briefing in Geneva yesterday. In the past seven days, more than 6,200 people escaped their homes, with an estimated 117,000 presently displaced inside Ukraine. About 730,000 people left for Russia since the conflict started, Cochetel said, citing Russian data.
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