U.S. and European military officials are expressing concerns over signs that Russia is moving forces into Crimea, a territory it annexed last year from Ukraine. The buildup of military and naval forces is raising alarms among military officials that Russia may have military intentions of pushing further south and into Ukraine.
U.S. and European military officials believe that the current build-up of Russian forces along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders is a sign that Russia is positioning itself to seize control of new areas, or at least that it believes it is gaining a justification for such action.
“We have seen recent intelligence indications that the Russian military is moving further in to Crimea,” U.S. Army Col. Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday in a written statement.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated sharply over the weekend, with Ukraine accusing Russia of sending troops and tanks into its eastern border region. On Monday, there were reports of clashes in the Russian border town of Rivne. Ukraine said there were casualties. The White House said the U.S. will take additional sanctions against Russia for its continued support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, even as President Obama urges Russian President Vladimir Putin to get involved in resolving the crisis.
“The United States strongly condemns Russian aggression, its military buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border, and the attempt to take back the Crimean peninsula,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “American and European policymakers agree that now is the time for Russia to seize the opportunity that has emerged to put an end to these destructive and costly hostilities in Ukraine.”
The Russian military said at the weekend that it is stationing elements of Russia’s Atlantic Fleet at Sevastopol, the base where Russia maintained a naval presence in Crimea until the annexation. Meanwhile, British defense chiefs said that they have detected about 50 Russian troops on a renewed mission to Crimea.
Those same commanders have come to believe that the buildup is a prelude to seizing new land to the south and east, or in the event of a breach in the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, escalating Russia’s military involvement. Russia has given little indication it has abandoned its goal of creating an autonomous state, with Crimea as its capital.
“We’re very concerned. The Russian buildup is very concerning,” said U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. “We think this is a [preparing] line of protection, which is likely to move further into to Ukraine in the future.”
American and European officials have noted that Vladimir Putin, who has been escalating tensions with the West, is starting to express new solidarity with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has increased the military fears in the West. Russian news outlets have been reporting that the U.S. is increasingly cooperating with its rebels, which has only boosted Russian fears about their survival.
The deployment of Russian troops suggests a desire to push farther in the southeast of Ukraine and once again into rebel-held areas, a worrisome move because of the harsh conditions there, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. forces in Europe.
“We have no idea what this means,” Hodges said. “There are a lot of questions and the answers will need to come from the Russian leadership and their intentions.”
Military officials are looking for other factors that may be fueling the increased tensions along the Ukrainian border. At a briefing at the Pentagon on Monday, Warren said the buildup of Russian forces is consistent with a desire to create “stability in” Crimean region, to punish Ukraine for what Russia sees as the government in Kiev’s policy of starting a battle to spread its influence and become more politically powerful.
Hodges echoed Warren’s comments and asked Russia to stop its invasion of eastern Ukraine and restore dialogue with the Ukrainian government in Kiev. He said Russians could still have a chance for a settlement to their conflict with Ukraine.
“You still have an opportunity to discuss reconciliation and peace and to get around your differences,” Hodges said. “You have one opportunity. We believe in giving everyone another chance. We still hope that you have one.”