August 2014 – UKRAINE – 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. President Vladimir Putin announced Moscow’s biggest economic response to Western sanctions, launching a tit-for-tat trade war by ordering his government to restrict imports of food from countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia. 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. A NATO military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia’s build-up at the border included tanks, infantry, artillery, air defense systems, logistics troops, Special Forces, and various aircraft. A Russian defense ministry spokesman dismissed the NATO accusations: “We’ve been hearing this for three months already.” Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in the Black Sea in March, and Western countries say it has funded and armed pro-Russian rebels who rose up in the east of Ukraine in April.
Over the past two months, 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 Malaysia Airlines 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. The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia that were mild at first but have been tightened sharply since the airliner was brought down. –Reuters