Russia’s troop deployment has sparked fears of an imminent escalation in hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
Russia has amassed more than 150,000 troops along its western border with Ukraine and in annexed Crimea in recent weeks, the European Union’s top diplomat said on Monday after a briefing from Ukraine’s foreign minister.
The military build-up has sparked fears of an imminent escalation in the years-long conflict which has racked eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists since the rebels seized a swath of territory there in April 2014.
Josef Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said the troop deployment was unprecedented.
“It is the highest Russian military deployment at Ukrainian borders ever,” he told reporters after a virtual meeting of the 27-member bloc’s foreign ministers.
“It is more than 150,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The risk of further escalation is evident,” Borrell added, declining to give a source for the figure.
He warned it will now only take “a spark” to set off a confrontation in the region, where more than 14,000 people have died during the fighting since 2014, according to Kyiv.
EU opts against further sanctions
Borrell’s comments came after Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba addressed EU diplomats during Monday’s meeting and called on the bloc to impose new sanctions on Russia, which seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and has been accused by Kyiv and Western countries of arming, funding and leading the separatist forces in the country’s east.
Despite Kuleba’s appeal, Borrell said no new economic sanctions or expulsions of Russian diplomats were planned for the time being.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied playing any role in the conflict in the Donbas region, of which Donetsk and Luhansk are a part, and has described its troop movements in the region as defensive.
It has also stated the military units moved to border positions would remain in position as long as Moscow saw fit.
But Russia’s recent moves have provoked alarm in Kyiv and among Ukraine’s allies, prompting calls from NATO and several of the alliance’s member states – including the United States, Germany and France – for Russian President Vladimir Putin to order a pullback of the troops amassed in border areas.
Ukraine is currently an ally of NATO, but not a member.
Kyiv’s renewed tensions with Moscow have meanwhile further worsened relations between Russia and the West, which had already plunged to post-Cold War lows following the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny earlier this year.