WASHINGTON – The number of Russian troops deployed in occupied Crimea near the Ukrainian border has grown steadily over the past two weeks and exceeded the size of the force that annexed the peninsula in 2014, the Pentagon said on Monday.
Press secretary John Kirby declined to provide precise figures on the growing presence of Russian troops. A spokesman for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said last week that there were around 80,000 troops currently stationed along the country’s border with Russia, including 40,000 in Crimea. On Monday, the European Union said there were now more than 100,000 in border regions.
“What I can tell you is that in general we have continued to see this accumulation increase. And again, that concerns us, ”Kirby told reporters.
“Overall, over the past two weeks, we have continued to see an increase in forces along the border with Ukraine in occupied Crimea,” he said.
Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula from Crimea in 2014 using troops in unmarked uniforms and also began supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has continued since then, claiming the lives of some 14,000 people despite a series of ceasefires.
Experts say it’s unclear whether Russia is just flexing its muscles or trying to provoke Kiev into a major clash.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said earlier this month that the troop build-up was part of preparedness exercises in response to what he called the threatening activities of the United States and its allies in the United States. ‘NATO.
The deployment of Russian troops “is certainly more important” than the build-up that accompanied the annexation of the peninsula in 2014, Kirby said.
“We call on Russia to clearly make its intentions clearer. We do not believe that this rise in power is conducive to security and stability along the border with Ukraine, and certainly not in occupied Crimea,” he said. Kirby said.
“We have certainly heard the Russians claim that it is all about training. It is not entirely clear to us that this is exactly the goal, ”he added.
A US defense official, who was not allowed to speak officially, told NBC News that tens of thousands of Russian troops had gathered on the border with Ukraine in Crimea and elsewhere. other regions, the accumulation comprising tanks, artillery and planes.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday expressed serious concerns about the presence of Russian troops.
“This is the highest military deployment of the Russian army to the Ukrainian borders ever. Clearly that’s a concern when you’re deploying a lot of troops, ”Borrell said. “Well, a spark can jump here or there.”
Borrell first told reporters that more than 150,000 Russian troops were massing at the Ukrainian borders. But later EU staff changed the number in the briefing transcript, saying the actual figure was over 100,000.
Mosheh Gains contributed.