The Russian army began new military manoeuvres close to the Ukrainian border on Thursday, hours after President Vladimir Putin warned Kiev of “consequences” if it continued to use force in the east of the country.
The Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, said ground troops would take part in drills in the south and west of the country, scorning demands from the West that up to 40,000 troops reported to be massing near the border return to their barracks.
Mr Shoigu also announced the deployment of the air force along the frontier, citing both increased Nato activity in Eastern Europe and the upsurge in unrest in Ukraine. The Kremlin has always denied plans to build on last month’s annexation of Crimea with an invasion of eastern Ukraine, but has maintained the right to intervene with force if ethnic Russians come under threat.
“If this military machine is not stopped, it will lead to greater numbers of dead and wounded,” the Interfax news agency quoted Mr Shoigu as saying, referring to clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists which left at least one person dead.
“Planned exercises by Nato forces in Poland and the Baltic countries do not foster normalisation of the situation surrounding Ukraine either,” he added. “We are forced to react to such a development.”
Ukraine’s acting President, Oleksander Turchynov, demanded Russia pull back its troops and stop trying to “blackmail” its neighbour.
The tug-of-war over Ukraine’s political future and the annexation of Crimea has sent relations between Russia and the West to their lowest ebb in decades, and both sides are flexing their military muscle. On Wednesday, 150 US troops arrived in Poland to bolster security along the European Union’s eastern flanks. Another 450 troops are due in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the coming days.
While Russia’s new military drills will heighten fears of a ground incursion, all sides are meant to be abiding by a deal agreed in Geneva last week to pull the country back from the brink of a violent break-up.
The US President Barack Obama said it was Russia that was refusing to uphold its commitments. American and EU leaders have accused Russia of orchestrating the separatist unrest in key eastern cities, and hold Moscow responsible for making sure the militia disarm and leave the state buildings they have been occupying.
“So far at least, we have seen them (Russia) not abide by the spirit or the letter of the agreement,” Mr Obama said.