WASHINGTON, July 17, 2014 —
Obama administration officials say Russia’s support for pro-Russian separatists in neighboring Ukraine is increasing, and Pentagon officials are citing a buildup of Russian forces along their shared border.
“We are concerned about the build-up we see along the Russia-Ukraine border,” Pentagon Spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said. “Overall, the increase in Russian presence along the Ukrainian border is concerning.”
He spoke just as reports were emerging that a Malaysian commercial airliner had crashed in eastern Ukraine and may have been shot down. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been briefed on the situation but said U.S. defense officials could not confirm details.
Last night, White House officials speaking on background provided more details of the situation in Ukraine during a conference call with reporters.
Russia has increased the number of combat troops on Ukraine’s border to around 12,000 and continues to ship weapons – including heavy weapons – to separatists inside Ukraine who favor Russian rule, senior administration officials said.
“There is an off-ramp here for Russia if it would choose to take it, and we have consistently supported the Ukrainians in pursuing a diplomatic path,” one official said, noting that the United States supported newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s peace plan.
That plan calls for a bilateral cease-fire, a release of hostages, a sealing of the Russia-Ukraine border monitored by the Office of Security Cooperation in Europe, and an end to the flow of weapons crossing the border.
Poroshenko was not able to get a bilateral cease-fire, and called a 10-day unilateral cease-fire. “Unfortunately, the Ukrainian side honored that, and the separatists did not,” the official said. “There were some 100 violations of the cease-fire, and more heavy weapons found their way into Ukraine. The Ukrainians lost three border posts to separatists during that time.”
Ukraine has moved against the separatists and made some significant gains on the ground, the official said, including the liberation of key towns, including Slavyansk and Svyatogorsk.
“On July 14, Ukrainians lost an An-26 transport jet, which was shot down from an altitude of 21,000 feet, with eight crew on board,” the U.S. official said. “Only very sophisticated weapons systems would be able to reach this height. On July 15, … several bridges into Donetsk were taken by separatists, as well as continued attacks on border checkpoints.”
The separatists have also been using increasingly sophisticated tactics, “indicating training and coordination from outside,” he said.
“From that perspective, after more than a month of asking us … to withhold further sanctions while they tried to implement their peace plan,” the official said, “the Ukrainians have now urged … the U.S., Canada and the [European Union] to take further sanctions measures, because the Russians have not responded to the repeated diplomatic efforts led by the Ukrainians and supported by us.”