The NATO alliance's top commander in Europe pushed already sky-high tensions in Europe even higher on Sunday when he told a conference in Brussels that Russia had massed a large and battle-ready military force along its border with Ukraine.
"The force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizable and very, very ready," U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove said, speaking at an event organized by the German Marshall Fund, a think tank. He suggested Russia now had enough troops at the ready to push through eastern and southern Ukraine, thereby connecting mainland Russia with the newly annexed Crimean Peninsula, as well as the breakaway pro-Russian region of Trans-Dniester, in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.
"There is absolutely sufficient [Russian] force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome," Gen. Breedlove said.
Russia's deputy defence minister, Anatoly Antonov, expressed bewilderment at the claims, saying his country was not undertaking in any undeclared military activity. He said Russia was observing internationally agreed limits regarding the number of troops it could station along the border with Ukraine, and that Russia's military positions had recently been visited by observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
"Russian armed forces are not involved in any manner of unannounced military manoeuvres that would endanger the security of neighbouring states," Mr. Antonov said. "We have nothing to hide."
But Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsya, said he believed war with Russia was a "growing" possibility. "This situation is becoming even more explosive than it used to be a week ago," he told ABC's Meet The Press program.
Gen. Breedlove said that Russia would currently have a tactical advantage in any conflict because its troops were already engaged in large-scale exercises in the border regions. While Ukraine is not a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, Gen. Breedlove called for NATO forces to be redeployed to protect the alliance members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which do share borders with Russia.
"I think we need to think about our allies, the positioning of our forces in the alliance and the readiness of those forces … such that we can be there to defend against it if required, especially in the Baltics and other places," he said.
Gen Breedlove expressed specific worries that Trans-Dniester could be the next region to see Russian military action. The tiny, landlocked strip has had de facto independence from Moldova since a 1992 war, and already hosts a small contingent of Russian soldiers.
After Russia absorbed Crimea, following a March 16 referendum in which residents overwhelmingly voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia, Trans-Dniester has asked to follow the same route.
In 2006, Trans-Dniester's 500,000 residents voted by a 98 per cent margin to join Russia. Like this month's Crimea vote, the referendum was not recognized by the international community.
Masked Russian troops were deployed to Crimea ahead of the March 16 vote, wearing no insignia but moving around the peninsula in military vehicles with Russian licence plates. Ignoring expanding Western sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed the documents finalizing Russia's annexation of the region, and his troops on the weekend moved closer to completing the takeover, ramming their way into several Ukrainian military bases, where they met little resistance.
Russian news services reported that, as of Sunday, the Russian flag had replaced the Ukrainian banner at 189 military positions around Crimea.
Sunday also saw pro-Russian demonstrations in the cities of Donetsk, in the east of Ukraine, and Odessa, in the south, where there was also a counter pro-Ukrainian demonstration. Such duelling protests have in recent weeks resulted in violence, raising worries that Moscow might intervene militarily in the name of protecting Ukraine's Russian-speakers.
Gen. Breedlove said NATO had for years tried to make Russia a partner but "now it is very clear that Russia is acting much more like an adversary than a partner."
Russia, however, accuses NATO of having relentlessly expanded towards Russia's borders over the past two decades while making it clear Moscow would never be invited to join.
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