The European Union’s top diplomat has said that in the face of the big military build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders, it would only take “a spark” to set off a confrontation.
Josep Borrell said after a virtual meeting of the EU foreign ministers that the massing of Russian troops, including military field hospitals, was a “matter of concern”.
“It is the highest military deployment of the Russian army on the Ukrainian borders ever. It’s clear that it’s a matter of concern when you deploy a lot of troops,” Borrell said. “Well, a spark can jump here or there.”
In Washington, the Pentagon said the Russian military build-up was larger than that in 2014 and it was not clear that it was for training purposes.
A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Russian build-up numbered in the tens of thousands but was not aware of intelligence that pointed to more than 150,000 Russian troops.
The United States also expressed its “deep concern” over Russia’s plans to block foreign naval ships and other vessels in parts of the Black Sea, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“This represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilise Ukraine,” Price said.
The EU’s foreign policy chief also told reporters that “there’s more than 150,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea,” and doubled down on the figure later before his services had to correct it in the transcript, saying the real figure was more than 100,000.
Nevertheless, Borrell said that it was “evident” there was risk of further escalation.
Borrell declined to say where he got the initial 150,000 Russian troop number from, but called it “my reference figure”. It was higher than the 110,000 estimate provided by Ukrainian Defence Minister Andriy Taran on Wednesday.
The military build-up has sparked fears of an imminent escalation in the years-long conflict that 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.
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.
He also said there was no request for a synchronised EU diplomatic move of expulsions in the standoff between the Czech Republic, an EU member state, and Russia following Prague’s accusation that Moscow was involved in a 2014 ammunition depot explosion.
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.