NATO estimates that more than 1,000 Russian soldiers are fighting alongside separatists inside Ukraine, a top official from the alliance said Thursday, as the country’s president spoke of a military invasion by Moscow.
“As separatists have become under pressure, we have seen a real upsurge of Russian activities,” said Brigadier General Nico Tak, the director of the crisis centre at NATO’s military headquarters in the Belgian town of Mons.
“Russian combat soldiers equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry are operating inside Ukraine’s sovereign territory,” he added, saying that “large quantities of advanced weapons” were being transferred to the pro-Russian separatists.
Current assessments point to a “conservative estimate” of “well over 1,000 troops” in Ukraine, supporting the separatists and fighting along with them, Tak said. The Russian involvement is becoming “more and more overt,” he noted.
An estimated 20,000 Russian troops are also stationed in the border region, he added, speaking of an “offensive army.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of a military invasion in the east and cancelled an official visit to Turkey, where he had been scheduled to attend the inauguration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Ukrainian military said it had largely lost control of cities in the country’s south-eastern border region, where Washington has said that Moscow was opening a “second front” in the conflict.
Pro-Russian separatists had taken control of the south-eastern city of Novoazovsk, more than 100 kilometres south of Donetsk, near the Russian border, the national security council said.
The south-eastern cities of Amvrosiivka and Starobeshevo were under the control of the Russian military, it said.
The rebels were advancing towards Mariupol, a key southern port city near the Russian border.
Tak said Ukrainian troops were being put “in a dire situation.”
Kiev has called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council. “The world must provide an assessment of the sharp aggravation of the situation in Ukraine,” Poroshenko said.
Analysts have said the shifting Russian focus farther south along the eastern Ukraine-Russia border shows that Moscow intends to invade near Mariupol to secure a land bridge to Crimea, which it seized earlier this year.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the shelling of residential areas in a coastal town between the border and Mariupol were among “incursions” that indicated “a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway.”
The insurgents have claimed that there were about 3,000 to 4,000 Russians fighting alongside them, insisting that they were volunteers including regular soldiers who were on vacation.
“We have never made a secret of the fact that there are many Russians among us,” separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko told Russian TV.
He said they “preferred to not spend their vacation on the beach, but to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers for freedom. … They fight alongside us because they see it as their duty.”
Psaki expressed concern over the Russian government’s “unwillingness to tell the truth even as its soldiers are found 30 miles inside Ukraine.”
French President Francois Hollande on Thursday described the possible presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine as “intolerable and unacceptable” and called on Moscow to “respect the sovereignty of Ukraine” and “stop supporting the separatists.”
He warned that EU sanctions against Russia “will be maintained, or reinforced, if the escalation continues.”
EU leaders are set to review the situation in Ukraine at a special summit in Brussels on Saturday. The bloc should step up its economic sanctions against Moscow, said Elmar Brok, the chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
The Kremlin must come to understand that its policy on Ukraine will prove “too expensive,” he added.
During a phone call Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for an explanation over developments in Ukraine.
Hollande said Russia’s behaviour “challenges the principles on which our collective security has been founded since the end of the Cold War” and was incompatible with being a 21st century power.
“It’s obviously above all up to the Russian president to resolve this contradiction,” he said.
Poroshenko had on Wednesday proposed a roadmap to solve the conflict, which would involve re-establishing government control over the border with Russia, a bilateral ceasefire and the release of prisoners.
Poroshenko and Putin recently agreed to revive a so-called contact group made up of the Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).