Russia will soon have more than 120,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, the country’s foreign minister warned on Tuesday (20 April), after the EU, US and NATO allies denounced the large build-up of Russian troops alongside Ukraine’s eastern borders.
“The situation on the contact line remains tense. Ukrainian troops have been ordered not to react to provocations,” foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters in a briefing.
“Unfortunately, the other side is doing everything possible to provoke them,” he added.
Russia has resorted to inciting provocations to invade foreign territory, a good example being the brief war in August 2008 that depleted Georgia of 25% of its territory.
According to Kuleba, in addition to the build-up of forces on his country’s border with Russia, paratroopers had been deployed and information warfare as well as “other strategic preparations” were underway.
“Russian troops continue to arrive in close proximity to our borders in the northeast, in the east and in the south. In about a week, they are expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops,” Kuleba said.
“This does not mean they will stop building up their forces at that number,” Kuleba said, warning of what he said was Moscow’s unpredictability, although he said Ukraine did not want conflict with Russia.
The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, had said on Monday that Russia had concentrated more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s border and in Crimea, though his office later corrected the number to more than 100,000 troops without giving a reason for the change.
Speaking after a meeting of EU foreign ministers, Borrell said no new economic sanctions or expulsions of Russian diplomats were planned for the time being, despite saying that the military build-up on Ukraine’s borders was the largest ever.
The US government has strongly condemned Russia’s plans to partially restrict the movement of ships in the Black Sea.
“It is the largest buildup we’ve seen certainly since 2014, which resulted in the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity – it is certainly bigger than the last one in 2014,” US Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said, refering to the year when Russia annexed Crimea. However he declined to give a specific figure.
State Department spokesman Ned Price had said on Monday that such a step would be another “unprovoked escalation” of Russia in the Ukraine conflict and accused Moscow of wanting to “undermine and destabilise” Ukraine.
Russia has said the build-up is a three-week snap military drill to test combat readiness in response to what it calls threatening behaviour from NATO. It has said the exercise is due to wrap up within two weeks.
“We certainly heard the Russians proclaim that this is all about training,” he added. “It’s not completely clear to us that that’s exactly the purpose,” Kirby added.
According to Russian state media, Russia plans to block parts of the Black Sea near the annexed Crimean Peninsula to foreign warships and other state ships from the end of April to the end of October.
The Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov would be affected and effectively blocked.
Slow progress in talks
The back and forth about the size of troops stationed in proximity to Ukraine’s borders came as an emergency meeting between Russia, Ukraine and separatists – the so-called Normandy format – was underway in an effort to defuse soaring tensions over Russia’s troop build-up along the ex-Soviet country’s borders.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called for the resumption of a ceasefire, and said after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron last week he hoped the negotiations would be successful.
Speaking to reporters, Kuleba also called for Moscow to re-commit to a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has supported separatist forces in a conflict that began in 2014, but added that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declined a request for talks.
The Ukrainian foreign minister also asked the international community to directly communicate to Moscow the condemnation of the Russian troop build-up and to reinforce Ukraine’s ability to defend itself in a “worst-case scenario”.
Kuleba attended a video conference with EU foreign ministers on Monday and said he openly “called on colleagues to start considering a new round of sectoral sanctions against Russia”.
“Sectoral sanctions are a matter of time and Russia’s behaviour. From my recent interactions with German and French foreign ministers, I can conclude that they understand this reality,” Kuleba added.
However, he said he did not feel EU ministers were ready for such a move although he told them that individual sanctions on Russian officials were insufficient.
“I have not felt enough coordinated appetite for sectoral sanctions, Kuleba said, adding that the format of the meetings – via videolink – might have contributed to hesitation on the EU side.
“If it was an in-person meeting, I would feel the possible appetite better. But I wanted them to understand, and I reflected in my address that personal sanctions on Russia achieve their goals but do not help discourage Russia from further aggressive actions,” Kuleba added.
(Edited by Georgi Gotev)