NATO warns of Russia invasion as Kiev troops move in on last rebel stronghold
The alarm bells are going off from Brussels to the Pentagon. About 20,000 combat ready troops are on the border with Ukraine and NATO fears that Vladimir Putin has everything in place to invade.
Russia has massed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine's border and could use the pretext of a humanitarian mission to invade, NATO said on Wednesday, its starkest warning yet that Moscow could soon mount a ground assault against its neighbor.
With fighting escalating and rebels losing ground in the weeks since a Malaysian airliner was shot down over separatist-held territory, Russia has announced military exercises this week in the border region.
"We're not going to guess what's on Russia's mind, but we can see what Russia is doing on the ground – and that is of great concern. Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine’s eastern border," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in an emailed statement.
Moscow could use "the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission as an excuse to send troops into Eastern Ukraine", she said.
Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in the Black Sea in March, and Western countries say it funded and armed pro-Russian rebels that rose up in the east of Ukraine in April.
Since June, government troops have gained ground against the rebels, who are led almost exclusively by Russian citizens and have managed to acquire tanks, missiles and other heavy weaponry that Kiev and its Western allies say can only have come from across the frontier.
Kiev said 18 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and 54 injured in 25 separate clashes over the past day in eastern Ukraine. Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said troops had been shelled from inside Russian territory and frontier guards had come under a four-hour mortar and artillery attack.
Fighting has intensified since Malaysian flight MH17 crashed on July 17, killing all 298 people on board. Western countries say it was shot down by rebels with an advanced anti-aircraft missile supplied by Russia. Moscow denies blame, and the Russians who command the rebels deny they had such missiles.
One reason that Putin may invade is that the rebellion in the east may be on its last legs. Ukraine forces are readying an assault on the city of Donetsk - the last major concentration of rebels. Soon, Putin will have to decide whether to let the rebellion peter out, or intervene decisively.
Air strikes and artillery fire between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops in the eastern city of Donetsk have brought the violence closer than ever to the city center, as Kiev's forces move in on the rebel stronghold.
With Ukrainian troops encircling Donetsk, Western leaders have accused Russia of building up forces along the border in what some fear may preface an intervention. On Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he believed that the "the threat of a direct intervention (by Russia) is definitely greater than it was a few days ago, or two weeks ago."
The Donetsk city administration said in a statement published online Tuesday that three people had been killed in shelling overnight.
In the Kalininsky neighborhood only 3 miles east of Donetsk's central square, rebels and civilians were milling around outside after a night of what many said they believed were Ukrainian air strikes. There were eight craters at the scene that appeared to be the result of aerial bombing.
As the Ukrainian military intensified its campaign against the rebels, heavily populated areas have increasingly come under attack. Kiev adamantly denies launching artillery barrage and air raids against residential neighborhoods and accuses the rebels of firing at civilian areas. They government has offered little evidence to prove their claims, which Human Rights Watch and others have questioned.
Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko categorically denied Wednesday that Ukrainian airplanes have carried out air strikes on Donestsk.
"The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as other cities and residential areas, are not being bombed by Ukrainian military aviation," Lysenko said.
No one knows the mind of Putin. Some American analysts think he is "winging it" - making spur of the moment decisions and that he doesn't have a master plan. That may be. And the troops may be at the border simply to give Putin the option of invasion if the situation develops favorably that way.
But again yesterday, there was artillery fire from Russian territory on Ukrainian troops. Some unmarked tanks - almost certainly Russian in origin - have been seen crossing the border into Ukraine. So whatever Putin has in mind, we are likely to find out in the very near future. You can't keep combat troops on a high state of alert forever. Something's got to give and NATO is very worried that invasion is Putin's end game.