BRUSSELS/DONETSK, 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 Wednesday, its starkest warning yet that Moscow could soon mount a ground assault against its neighbor.
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.
Moscow could use “the pretext of a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission as an excuse to send troops into eastern Ukraine,” she said.
Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula on the Black Sea in March, and Western countries say it funded and armed pro-Russian rebels that rose up in the east of Ukraine in April.
Since June, 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 Malaysian flight MH17 crashed 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.
Responding Wednesday, Vladimir Putin banned or limited food and agricultural product imports for a year from nations that have imposed sanctions on Russia over its stance on Ukraine.
The Kremlin said in a statement that Putin’s executive decree “either bans or limits ... the import into the Russian Federation of certain kinds of agricultural products, raw materials and food originating from countries that have decided to adopt economic sanctions against Russian entities and individuals.”
On the ground, Kiev’s military offensive has pushed the rebels out of many of their strongholds, leaving them largely besieged in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which the rebels have proclaimed capitals of two “people’s republics.”
Residents in Donetsk, east Ukraine’s main industrial hub and now the principal rebel redoubt, said Ukrainian warplanes had carried out airstrikes overnight.
Reuters journalists heard the planes roar overhead and massive explosions during the night. In the morning, an industrial district 2-3 kilometers from the city center was pocked with craters, including two huge holes 7 meters wide and 2 meters deep, ripped into the asphalt.
“The planes were flying low. Then there were two massive explosions and the glass was blown out of the window. It was terrifying. This is war. There will never be peace,” said Nadezhda, a woman living nearby.
Government military spokesman Lysenko denied Ukrainian planes had carried out airstrikes, saying: “The Ukrainian military does not bomb the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk or any other similar populated places.”
Many residents have fled the two cities, but hundreds of thousands of people are still living in them, increasingly fearful that they will bear the brunt of a full-blown assault.