Multiple columns of Russian soldiers and military equipment have entered eastern Ukraine over the last two days, NATO's top commander said in statement on Wednesday.
Speaking in Bulgaria, US General Phillip Breedlove said that precise numbers were not yet known but that NATO officials had seen "Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian combat troops" crossing the border. "There is no question any more about Russia's direct military involvement in Ukraine," he added.
This is not the first time the international military alliance has noted that Russian troops are active in Ukraine. Just last week NATO officials said that 200-250 Russian specialists were still active in Ukraine's east although most of its regular infantry had withdrawn.
Since then however tensions have heightened in the region. Over the last week several military convoys have been spotted moving around east Ukraine's rebel-held territories sparking fear in Kiev and its western allies that preparation for a new offensive is be underway.
Earlier this week the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) said it had spotted two convoys of military vehicles, including howitzers, tanks and Kamaz trucks, moving around the Donetsk region, all with their license plates removed. One of the columns sighted by the OSCE's special mission monitors also contained men in dark green military uniforms without insignia — a description similar to that of the Russian forces which covertly invaded Ukraine's southern peninsula, Crimea, earlier this year.
The OSCE said it was unable to ascertain where the military columns had originated from, but authorities in Kiev cited it as supporting their claim that a convoy of 32 tanks, 16 howitzers and 30 trucks of ammunition and fighters had crossed into the Luhansk region from Russia last Friday.
Consistent with the claims of a covert war being fought by Russia in Ukraine's east, an upcoming report from Armament Research Services (ARES) has documented substantial evidence of Russia's military presence in its neighbor's troubled east.
"Vehicles, including main battle tanks (MBT), infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) and armored personnel carriers (APC) that were produced in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union are being used in eastern Ukraine. These are vehicles which are not known to be in the Ukrainian government's inventory," ARES Director N.R. Jenzen-Jones told VICE News. Among the vehicles documented the in the ARES report are the BTR-82AM IFV and the T-72B3 MBT which "only entered Russian service in the last two years," he added.
Yet despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary, officials in Moscow continue to deny sending supplies of weapons or soldiers to bolster the rebels fight in Ukraine's east.
Responding to NATO's allegations on Wednesday, Igor Konshenkov, spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry, was dismissive. "We've already stopped taking note of the unfounded statements by NATO," Russian state-owned news agency TASS reported him as saying. "We've stressed many a time there are no real facts behind the acts of shaking the air by Brussels officials."
A dramatic increase in Russian aircraft incursions into European and North American airspace is also fuelling concerns among Western officials that Moscow may also be willing to broaden the conflict beyond Ukraine's borders.
This year NATO aircrafts have carried out more than 100 interceptions of Russian bombers and intelligence gathering planes, a figure three times higher than in 2013 and approaching the 150 annual interceptions at the height of the Cold War. According to NATO Lieutenant-Colonel Jay Janzen "multiple" Russian aircrafts have flown down the UK to Portugal as well as over the Baltic Sea and Black Sea in the past weeks alone.
The international military alliance now has a unit of "rapid reaction" fighter jets deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to respond to incidents. "My opinion is that they are messaging us that they are a great power," Breedlove said at a Pentagon briefing.
Yet despite the growing tensions, the West has shown little appetite for continuing to apply financial pressure on Moscow over its involvement in the Ukraine conflict.
On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her government was not planning further economic sanctions against Russia, despite being "not satisfied" with the implementation of a peace deal agreed in Minsk on September 5.
Russia's economy has finally begun to strain under the weight of the West's financial pressure. The ruble has tumbled nearly 40 percent against the dollar compared to the start of the year — but Merkel said the focus now had to be on dealing with "winter and the humanitarian situation (in eastern Ukraine)."
The Obama administration also appears reluctant to up the ante with further sanctions, which US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said have hurt the economy but have "failed to sufficiently affect Russia's calculus as it relates to Ukraine."
The frosty relations between East and West were evident on Tuesday as world leaders met in Bejing at an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. According to Bernadette Meehan, a White House spokesperson, US President Barack Obama, and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke to each other "on three occasions for a total approximately 15-20 minutes" throughout the event, and discussed "Iran, Syria and Ukraine." However, reporters at the event described the two presidents' interactions as visibly strained.
In stark contrast, Putin was deemed to be overly-friendly with Peng Liyuan, the Chinese first lady after he abruptly stood up at the summit dinner, which was being broadcast live, to wrap a coat over her shoulders. Footage of the move, which prompted speculation that the Russian president was 'flirting' with Liyuan, was quickly scrubbed by censors from Chinese media and social network sites.
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