Poland said the risk of Russia invading Ukraine has increased in the “last dozen hours or so” after President Vladimir Putin increased the number of troops on his country’s western border.
Poland has “reason to believe” that the risk of an incursion is “greater than a few days ago,” Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters in Warsaw today. His foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, yesterday said that any incursion would be under the guise of a peacekeeping operation. Russia yesterday called for a humanitarian mission to Eastern Ukraine, which is on the verge of a “catastrophe,” the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on its website.
“Open intervention in Ukraine would be a completely new situation” that “nobody in Europe has an answer for,” Tusk said.
Putin has shown 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last week, with Russia massing forces on its neighbor’s border in the biggest military buildup since troops were withdrawn from the area in May.
The Stoxx Europe 600 Index dropped 0.7 percent to 329.71 at 8:05 a.m. in London, extending its decline from a six-year high on June 10 to 5.8 percent. Standard & Poor’s 500 Index futures advanced 0.1 percent today, while the MSCI Asia Pacific Index decreased 0.5 percent.
Russia has deployed 45,000 soldiers, 160 tanks and as many as 1,360 armored vehicles, Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, 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.
“Unfortunately, Russia has restored its combat-readiness on the Ukraine border with more than a dozen battalion-sized combat groups,” 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.”
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 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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 Secretary General 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 expressed alarm about the new deployment of Russian forces 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.
Three civilians were killed amid overnight shelling in the city of 1 million, which also damaged infrastructure and residential buildings, the Donetsk city council said on its website today.
The humanitarian situation in Ukraine is steadily worsening, John Ging, director of humanitarian operations for the United Nations, said at an emergency meeting of the Security Council yesterday in New York. He said the fighting has killed at least 1,367 people -- both civilians and combatants -- and wounded 4,087 since mid-April.
About 3.9 million people live in areas directly affected by violence and face imminent security threats, while more than 1,000 people flee conflict zones every day, said Ging, who cited a Russian estimate that 740,000 Ukrainians have crossed into Russia since the beginning of the year.
The UN’s refugee agency estimates the number of internally displaced Ukrainians at more than 117,000, according to a statement on its website yesterday.
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 Airlines 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.
While Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the conflict, the U.S. and its EU allies say Putin is supplying the insurgents with weapons, manpower and financing and say he could stop the war if he reined in the separatists.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin told the Security Council that the situation in Ukraine, particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk, is “disastrous” and called on “the international community to take emergency measures to improve the humanitarian measures” in the area.
“Kiev continues to step up its military operations, taking hundreds of thousands of lives with it,” Churkin said. He said Russia is willing to send a humanitarian aid convoy with full international supervision including of transport routes and the distribution of the aid.
The situation in Luhansk, a city of more than 400,000, remains “critical” as residents have no access to electricity and water, while both fixed-line and mobile phone connections are off, the local council said on its website. Shops are closed, limiting the availability of food and fuel, it said.
U.S. Deputy Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo said Russia is propelling the conflict.
“In addressing the humanitarian situation, we cannot lose sight of one underlying fact: Russia can stop all of this,” DiCarlo told the Security Council. “The surest way to end the violence is for Russia to stop the flow of fighters, weapons and money from Russia into eastern Ukraine.”
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.
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 to retaliate against 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, the governor of the Voronezh region near Ukraine. Any retaliation “must be done extremely carefully to support producers and avoid harming consumers.”
Russia going ahead with a suspension of flights across Siberia would primarily disrupt trips to Japan and South Korea, according to an analysis on Flightradar24 website. Such a move would raise the prospect of the costly rerouting of planes. At the same time, relatively few international carriers cross eastern Russia, in contrast with more crowded skies closer to Moscow.
To contact the reporters on this story: Stepan Kravchenko in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org; Volodymyr Verbyany in Kiev at email@example.com; David McQuaid in Warsaw at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at email@example.com Michael Winfrey