Ukraine officials yesterday accused Russia of conducting a large military build-up near the country’s border that raises the threat of an invasion.
Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, said Russia had deployed more than 80,000 troops, up to 270 tanks and 140 combat planes close to the border, creating the “threat of a full-scale invasion from various directions”.
Mr Parubiy said the Russian troops were as close as two or three hours’ drive from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
But Russian deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov last night denied a military build-up on the 1,250-mile border. He also said Moscow had accepted a request from Ukrainian officials to conduct a surveillance flight over Russian territory.
Mr Antonov said while Russia was not obliged to allow such a flight, it decided to issue permission for one so that Ukraine could see for itself that “Russian armed forces aren’t conducting any military activities near the border of Ukraine that could threaten its security”.
Russian forces have secured control over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and Russia’s parliament has given president Vladimir Putin permission to use the military to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine.
Crimea plans to hold a referendum on Sunday that will ask residents if they want the territory to become part of Russia. Ukraine’s government and western nations have denounced the referendum as illegitimate and warned Russia against trying to annex Crimea.
Mr Parubiy said Russia could try to seize government buildings in eastern regions of Ukraine and demand a referendum there. He said such plans had been thwarted thanks to the efforts of Ukrainian law- enforcement agencies.
He added that Ukrainian authorities had denied 3,700 Russian citizens permission to enter Ukraine because they were suspected of being involved in extremism and sabotage.
Crimea, where Russia maintains its Black Sea fleet base, became the epicentre of tensions in Ukraine after president Viktor Yanukovich fled last month following months of protests.
Mr Parubiy said 399 people had registered as refugees from Crimea.
Ukraine’s interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was meeting US president Barack Obama last night, with Mr Yatsenyuk asking the West to defend Ukraine against Russia, calling it a country that is “armed to the teeth and that has nuclear weapons”.
Nato yesterday deployed two surveillance aircraft to monitor Ukraine’s airspace and Black Sea ship movements.
Nato HQ spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jay Janzen said one Boeing E-3 Sentry aircraft based in England would observe Russian air and sea movements from Polish airspace, while the other based in Germany would fly over Romania. Both Poland and Romania are Nato members bordering Ukraine, while Romania’s Black Sea coast is 140 miles from the Crimean peninsula.
A Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, said the US was sending 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland to augment an air force detachment there. He said there was no scheduled departure date for the fighter jets and they would be there “until further notice”.
As Washington considers imposing new sanctions on Russia, US secretary of state John Kerry will hold talks with his Russian counterpart, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, in London tomorrow in a bid to defuse the crisis.
In Warsaw, Polish prime minister Donald Tusk said, after talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel, that both leaders “hope to see signs of de-escalation [in Ukraine], but we must also be prepared for a worse scenario”.