On Monday Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby for the first time gave a US military assessment of Russia's troop build-up along Ukraine's eastern border that goes significantly beyond prior statements.
Kirby said of the Russian military build-up that "it is certainly bigger than the one in 2014," however without providing a specific number. Russia insists the buildup is for training, but it is "not clear to us" that this is the only purpose, he added according to Politico's Lara Seligman. Kirby described that "over the past couple of weeks, officials have continued to see an increase in Russia's buildup of troops on the border with Ukraine," Politico's Pentagon correspondent added.
Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby says the U.S. is “seriously concerned” about a buildup of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/SiWgssgkFh— The Recount (@therecount) April 19, 2021
Ukrainian government officials late last month had been the first to accuse the Kremlin of destabilizing and saber-rattling with a major troop deployment to Crimea and near the border with war-torn Donbass, setting off a renewed diplomatic crisis between Moscow and the West.
Kiev ultimately charged that Russia was preparing for an "offensive" into Ukraine's sovereign territory in support of pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukraine's military in the country's east. While the conflict had smoldered since the height of fighting in 2014 and 2015, which has taken over 13,000 lives over a half-decade, late last month four Ukrainian soldiers were reported killed in shelling by separatists.
The Economist has recently voiced the biggest concern out of Western allies as follows: "The last time that Russia gathered so many troops on Ukraine's borders, it went on to invade the country and annex Crimea."
The Pentagon's new assessment that the Russian troop build-up goes beyond 2014 levels comes a week after Secretary of State Antony Blinken first said "We're now seeing the largest concentration of Russian forces on Ukraine's borders since 2014." He had issued the words from NATO's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, saying further "That is a deep concern not only to Ukraine, but to the United States" - comments backed by NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
Meanwhile also on Monday the European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell issued an astoundingly high estimate and accusation of Russian troop numbers in the area:
Initially, Borrell 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 over 100,000.
Nevertheless, Borrell said that "the risk of further escalation — it’s evident."
He said that a "spark" could set off major war at any time. "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."
Ukrainian leaders have been urging Western countries to make clear to Russia that it will pay a price for its "aggression" - while President Volodymyr Zelensky has lobbied for a 'fast-tracking' into NATO membership, considered a Russian 'red line'.