KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — NATO allies accused Russia of misleading the world with “disinformation” by saying it was returning some troops to bases, charging that Moscow has instead added as many as 7,000 more troops near its tense border with Ukraine.
With Western fears high that Russia is planning to invade, tensions also spiked Thursday along the line that separates Ukrainian forces from Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east, with the parties accusing each other of intensive shelling.
Asked about Moscow’s troop buildup, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. and its NATO partners “will closely match Russian words to Russian deeds, what they say to what they actually do.”
“We’ve seen some of those troops inch closer to that border. We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft,” he said at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea. We even see them stocking up their blood supplies. You don’t do these sort of things for no reason, and you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was concerned “that Russia is trying to stage a pretext for an armed attack against Ukraine.”
After a handful of positive signals from Russia that lowered the temperature in the crisis earlier in the week, the pendulum appeared to swing in the opposite direction again. With an estimated 150,000-plus troops massed near Ukraine, the Kremlin offered to keep pursuing diplomatic solutions — an overture the NATO chief welcomed, even as he and others warned that the U.S.-led alliance has seen no sign of the military withdrawal that Moscow announced.
“We have seen the opposite of some of the statements. We have seen an increase of troops over the last 48 hours, up to 7,000,” said British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace ahead of a meeting Thursday of the western alliance in Brussels.
That squared with what a U.S. administration official said a day earlier. The top EU official said similar.
British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey even called Russia’s claim to be withdrawing troops “disinformation.” Russia accuses the West of the same.
Russia has “enough troops, enough capabilities, to launch a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine with very little or no warning time,” Stoltenberg said. “The fact that you’re putting a battle tank on a train and moving it in some direction doesn’t prove a withdrawal of troops.”
While the West warned the threat of invasion remains high, no attack materialized Wednesday, as some had feared.
Moscow said several times this week that some forces are pulling back to their bases, but it gave virtually no details that would allow for an independent assessment of the scope and direction of the troop movement, and Western leaders quickly cast doubt on those statements. NATO allies knocked down the Russian assertions again Thursday, warning that they are ready to counter any aggression.
“The consequences of this mass buildup – nearly 60% of Russia’s land combat forces on the border of a sovereign nation – will get you the opposite effect,” Wallace said.
“We are deadly serious,” he added, “and we’re going to face the threat that is currently being posed.”
The alliance has moved troops and military equipment into Eastern Europe in a display of resolve of meant to deter any Russian aggression and underline its intent to defend NATO’s eastern members, in the unlikely event that they too become a target.
The U.S. has started deploying 5,000 troops to Poland and Romania. Another 8,500 are on standby. Britain is sending hundreds of soldiers to Poland, offering more warships and planes, and doubling its personnel in Estonia. Germany, the Netherlands and Norway are sending additional troops to Lithuania. Denmark and Spain are providing jets for air policing in the Baltic Sea region.
Even if an attack doesn’t materialize, the sustained Russian pressure on Ukraine has further hobbled its shaky economy and left an entire nation under constant strain — a situation that could last indefinitely.
Ukraine already has been the stage of fighting for eight years, and tensions soared again Thursday in the conflict in the country’s east, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014.
Separatist authorities in the Luhansk region reported an increase in Ukrainian shelling along the tense line of contact, describing it as a “large-scale provocation.” Separatist official Rodion Miroshnik said rebel forces returned fire.
Ukraine disputed the claim, saying that separatists had shelled its forces, but they didn’t fire back. The Ukrainian military command charged that shells hit a kindergarten building in Stanytsia Luhanska, wounding two civilians, and cut power supply to half of the town.
An observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is expected to offer its assessment of the situation later Thursday.
Ukrainain President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted that “the shelling of a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation,” adding that the OSCE monitoring activities are “an additional deterrent.”
Many in the West are concerned that a flare-up in the east could be used by Russia as a pretext for rolling across the border — although there was no sign yet that the latest fighting was larger than usual. Russia, in turn, aired worries that hawkish forces in Ukraine, encouraged by the West, could launch an attack to reclaim control of the rebel areas — plans Ukrainian authorities deny.
A 2015 deal brokered by France and Germany helped end the worst of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but regular skirmishes have continued and a political settlement has stalled.
The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to hold its annual meeting on the agreement on Thursday.
Russia denies it is plotting an invasion but says it’s free to deploy troops wherever necessary to counter threats from NATO. It wants the West to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet nations out of NATO, halt weapons deployments near Russian borders and roll back forces from Eastern Europe, the demands the allis have flatly rejected.
There have been some suggestions Ukraine could decide to abandon its hope of joining NATO — something written into its constitution — as a way out of the crisis. It’s not clear how or if it would do that.
While the U.S. and its allies have rejected Moscow’s demands to bar membership to Ukraine, they offered to engage in talks with Russia on limiting missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures.
Russian President Vladimir Putin charged that Moscow had offered to discuss those issues years ago, but the West only agreed to talk about them now. He said that Russia was ready to talk about them now, but only in conjunction with its main security demands.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow was sending its formal reply on those issues to the U.S. and NATO later Thursday and will make it public.
Even as Russia seemed to try to ease tensions this week, Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite imagery company that has been monitoring the Russian buildup, reported continued heightened military activity near Ukraine. It noted a new pontoon bridge and a new field hospital in Belarus. It also said that some forces had left an airfield in the country, a Russian ally, but it was unclear where they went.
A senior U.S. administration official said some forces arrived only recently and that there had been a marked increase in false claims by Russians that the Kremlin might use as pretext for an invasion. The official said those claims included reports of unmarked graves of civilians allegedly killed by Ukrainian forces, assertions that the U.S. and Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons, and claims that the West is funneling in guerrillas to kill Ukrainians.
The official was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive operations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The official did not provide underlying evidence.
The rebels in eastern Ukraine have made such claims for weeks.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were among political, military and diplomatic leaders heading Thursday to an annual security conference in Munich that will see urgent consultations on the crisis.