Russia has gathered a larger military force near the border with Ukraine than what it used during the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the US defense department said Monday.
Speaking to reporters, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Russia’s military presence was definitely bigger than in 2014, without providing specific numbers.
European Union’s foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell was more specific, putting the number at around 150,000, and later correcting it to around 100,000 troops.
The statements come as tensions in the region continue to escalate, following numerous ceasefires violations. Late last month, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and another wounded by Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk Region in this year’s deadliest engagement. In February 2014, Russian troops captured Crimea, which allowed for the installation of the pro-Russian Aksyonov government in Crimea. A month later, Russia formally incorporated Crimea as one of its federal subjects.
The estimates of the number of Russian forces in the region come at a time when Russia has massed a large naval presence in the Black Sea, in addition to announcing its intent to block portions of it for traffic. More specifically, Russia said it was considering closing the Kerch Strait, which would effectively cut off Ukraine’s Berdiansk and Mariupol ports.
The Kerch Strait was the scene of a 2018 standoff between Ukrainian Navy and Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), whose personnel opened fire at two Ukrainian missile boats and a tugboat, injuring several sailors and arresting others.
While it is yet to close the Kerch Strait, Russian news outlets reported that the country has already shut down a number of air routes over the Black Sea and occupied Crimea. The Russian notices to airmen (NOTAM) will be active until April 24.
Earlier in the day, the country’s defense ministry also disclosed large-scale naval drills in the Black Sea, involving the participation of some 20 units, ranging from frigates and corvettes to large amphibious assault ships.
What is more, a TASS report said that over 50 aircraft of the Southern Military District had redeployed to Crimea as part of a “control combat readiness check.”