KIEV (Reuters) – Russia has stepped up its forces near the border with Ukraine since August and is now the biggest military threat since 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea, the armed forces commander told Reuters on Tuesday. Ukrainian.
General Viktor Muzhenko motioned to a series of satellite images which he said showed the presence of Russian T-62 M tanks stationed 18 km (11 miles) from the Ukrainian border.
They had more than doubled, from 93 machines to 250 in the space of two weeks, from mid-September to October 1.
For Muzhenko, this is evidence of a concerted build-up of Russian forces in the run-up to November 25, when Russia fired and captured three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait, an action Kiev leaders fear. to be the precursor of a large-scale invasion.
Ukraine and Russia have exchanged accusations over the clash. The Kremlin spokesman on Monday called “absurd” the idea that Russia wants to seize Ukrainian ports by force.
Muzhenko said Russian troop levels were “at their highest” since 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and then deployed forces to eastern Ukraine.
“In front of us is an aggressor who has no legal, moral or other limits,” he said. “It is very difficult to predict when it will come to mind to start active combat actions against Ukraine.”
“This (the Kerch Strait incident) was an act of aggression by the regular forces, the border service (of the Russian Federation) in relation to the Ukrainian armed forces,” Muzhenko said.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Muzhenko said Ukraine has deployed more ground and air forces to the region in response and stepped up military exercises across the country, but declined to go into details.
He added that Ukraine plans to complete the construction of a military base on the Sea of ââAzov, which had been planned before the naval clash, by next year.
Ukraine was also waiting for help from its allies, mainly the United States, with equipment, including aerial and naval reconnaissance, ships and weapons for ground troops, he said.
COLLAPSE OF RELATIONSHIPS
Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russian support for separatist rebels in the eastern Donbass region.
The Donbass conflict claimed more than 10,000 lives despite a theoretical ceasefire. Russia firmly denies sending troops and heavy weapons to the region.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last week introduced martial law for a period of 30 days in areas of the country considered most vulnerable to Russian attack.
When asked if the military would need an extension once the 30 days of martial law expired, he said an assessment would be made closer to the time.
âThe duration of martial law depends on the Russian Federation,â he said.
“Based on how it will increase its capabilities, how it will react, how it will provoke and achieve such provocations – not as in the Kerch Strait but also on a larger scale – the legal regime that will be defined in Ukraine depends on it. . “
From around August, Russia stepped up the deployment of its forces on the Ukrainian border, he said. Some units were moved from the Russian Far East to the Ukrainian border in September during Vostok-2018, Russia’s biggest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“We are seeing an increase in the intensity of operational and combat training measures, and all, as a rule, are offensive in nature,” he said.
He said there had been a “serious increase” in the number of troops and weapons in Crimea and that Russia had also doubled its naval presence in the region over the past month.
“The conjunction of all these signs confirms the aggressiveness of intentions and threats of a military nature against Ukraine, which are constantly increasing”, he declared.
Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Editing by Richard Balmforth