Kiev/Brussels — Russia will soon have more than 120,000 troops on Ukraine's border, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday, calling for new western economic sanctions to deter Moscow from “further escalation”.
Washington and Nato have been alarmed by the large build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday expressed concern at the continued Russian troop deployments. The situation is “extremely tense and very worrying as a result of the concentration of forces on the Russian side of the Ukrainian border,” Merkel told a virtual Council of Europe event.
Western officials say the concentration of forces is now larger than during that annexation. The figure given by Kuleba is higher than Ukraine's previous estimate of 80,000 Russian troops, of which 50,000 were new deployments.
“Russian troops continue to arrive in proximity to our borders in the northeast, in the east and in the south. In about a week, they are expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops,” Kuleba told an online news conference.
“This does not mean they will stop building up their forces at that number,” Kuleba said, warning of what he said was Moscow's unpredictability though he said Ukraine did not want conflict with Russia.
“The cost of preventing Russia's further escalation will always be lower than the cost of stopping it and mitigating its consequences ... It is way more effective to clearly make Moscow understand that a new stage of aggression will have dire consequences for Russia, international isolation and painful economic sanctions.”
Kuleba also called for Moscow to recommit to a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed forces have fought Ukrainian troops in a conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014.
Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame for a rise in casualties in the conflict in recent weeks. Kuleba said Russian snipers were killing Ukrainian soldiers to provoke Ukraine to counterattack.
Russia has said its troop build-up is a three-week snap military drill to test combat readiness in response to what it calls threatening behaviour from Nato.
Moscow on Tuesday also accused the US and Nato of “provocative activity” in the waters and airspace of the Black Sea.
More than 20 Russian warships took part in military exercises in the Black Sea on Tuesday, the Interfax news agency reported citing a statement from Russia's Black Sea fleet. Russia has temporarily restricted the movement of foreign warships and “other state ships” near Crimea, a move which caused the US to express its “deep concern”.
Earlier, Germany, Denmark and Finland scrambled fighter jets to escort two Russian Tupolev Tu-160 bombers that were flying over the Baltic Sea, Interfax quoted Russia's defence ministry as saying on Tuesday.
The ministry was quoted as saying that the flight had been carried out over neutral waters for eight hours and that it had been planned.