Russia has massed over 150,000 troops along the Ukrainian border and in the annexed Crimean peninsula in a new military camp revealed by satellite images.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell confirmed the news on Monday after talks involving Ukraine’s foreign ministry and said: ‘It is the highest Russian military deployment at Ukrainian borders ever’.
He warned: ‘The risk of further escalation, it’s evident.’
The camp, located next to Kachyk Lake on the south coast of Crimea, appeared over the course of a month to house Russian soldiers and vehicles that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been ferrying to the region on the back of trains and trucks.
Images taken by PlanetLabs satellites on April 13 show at least 1,000 vehicles on site, lined up in fenced-off areas opposite infantry tents. Only a fraction of that force was visible in another image taken a month earlier on March 15.
A secondary sub-camp is also visible around a mile to the west of the main camp, on the shores of Kachyk Lake. That camp primarily consists of vehicles in fenced-off pens, with a handful of infantry tents visible.
While Ukraine has previously warned that as many as 40,000 new Russian troops have been stationed in Crimea, in addition to another 40,000 on the mainland, it is the first time that a camp housing the force has been pictured.
Tensions have spiralled over the build-up of Russian troops around its southwestern neighbour as an intensification of clashes with Moscow-backed separatists has fuelled fears of a return to widespread fighting in Ukraine.
Satellite images of an area next to Kachyk Lake in Crimea have revealed a new Russian military camp (right) and sub-camp (left) which have been constructed between March 15 and April 13 amid a wider troop build-up on the Ukraine border
Images of the camp show thousands of vehicles in fenced-off pens (right) alongside infantry tents (left) which have been organised into rows
Moscow’s military says it is conducting exercises along its frontier in response to moves by Western military alliance NATO that ‘threaten Russia’.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said last week that ‘two armies and three airborne units were successfully deployed’ to the Russia’s western border and that the drills would be over ‘within two weeks’.
Ukraine is pushing the West for more practical support as it looks to deter any further aggression from Moscow.
Kiev’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pressed the EU to prepare ‘a new set of sectoral sanctions’ against Russia in talks with his counterparts from the 27-nation bloc on Monday.
But Borrell said that there were currently no further sanctions being proposed or under consideration.
It comes after more satellite images revealed another camp has been built near the Russian city of Voronezh, around 500miles north of the new camp and 150miles from the Ukrainian border.
Satellite images of the Voronezh camp, first published 10 days ago, confirm it is arranged in a similar fashion – with vehicles including mobile missile launchers and armoured personnel carriers lined up inside pens.
Infantry tents, presumably used by units operating the vehicles, can then be seen positioned in looser formations just a short distance from the vehicles.
Kiev believes there are now more than 80,000 Russian troops in the region – possibly as many as 115,000 – a force larger than at any time since Putin gave the order to annex Crimea in 2014.
Moscow insists the troops are being deployed only for training exercises and in response to a build-up of NATO troops which the alliance has insisted does not exist.
That has raised fears they could actually be used for an invasion of eastern Ukraine, particularly the Donbas region where Russian-backed rebel groups are involved in a years-long conflict with Kiev’s forces.
Observers have also suggested the unannounced build-up could be designed as a test for Joe Biden, as Putin attempts to get the measure of his new counterpart.
Biden has called for the Russian president to ‘de-escalate’ tensions and proposed a summit which could take place in Finland in the coming months.
The move has been hailed as a win by Moscow, after Biden previously took a hard line against Putin – calling him ‘a killer’ and refusing to meet with him on the basis that he was too busy.
As well as seeking support from the US, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has turned to his European allies, last week meeting with France’s President Emanuel Macron in Paris and speaking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel via videolink.
The pair pledged their backing for Ukraine, but offered little in the way of practical support.
Meanwhile, the UK has offered to send two warships to the Black Sea as a warning to Putin, according to leaked documents, after the US cancelled the deployment of two of its own vessels to the region.
The images are the first to be taken of new Russian camps in Crimea after Ukraine warned there are now more than 40,000 of Putin’s troops on the peninsula – with another 40,000 thought to be on the mainland
This image shows a nearby sub-camp, located around a mile west of the main base and on the shores of the lake, which is mainly comprised of vehicles with just a few infantry tents nearby
One Type 45 destroyer armed with anti-aircraft missiles and an anti-submarine Type 23 frigate will leave the Royal Navy’s carrier task group in the Mediterranean and head through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea, according to the report.
RAF F-35B Lightning stealth jets and Merlin submarine-hunting helicopters will stand ready on the task group’s flag ship, the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, to support the warships in the Black Sea, the report added.
While the Ministry of Defence insists the pre-planned deployment is routine, it comes at a time of heightened fears of conflict between Russia and Ukraine which has seen a build-up of Russian troops along the border and clashes in eastern Ukraine between the army and pro-Russian separatists.
UK defence chiefs have also confirmed that six Royal Air Force Typhoon super-jets will fly to eastern Europe as part of another pre-planned mission.
The Typhoons will be supported by troops from the RAF’s No1 Expeditionary Logistics Squadron and No2 Mechanical Transport Squadron. They are deploying from bases in the UK this week and will police the skies around the Black Sea.
A ministry spokesman told the Sunday Times that the UK government was working closely with Ukraine to monitor the situation and continued to call on Russia to de-escalate.
‘The UK and our international allies are unwavering in our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’, the newspaper quoted the spokesman as saying.
Ukraine has appealed to its European allies for support as Putin continues massing his forces, and it has since been revealed that Britain will send two ships including a Type 45 destroyer (file image) into the Black Sea in the coming weeks
Kiev has warned the Russia force now sitting on its border is the largest assembled by Putin since his 2014 annexation of Crimea, amid fears of a fresh invasion (pictured, tank units train in eastern Ukraine)
The Kremlin has played down the deployment as a military exercise, not a threat. However, Russian state TV last week warned Moscow is ‘one step away from war’.
More than 14,000 people have been killed since 2014, when Russia annexed eastern Ukraine.
Security experts now fear Russia is planning to reoccupy eastern Ukraine on the pretence of protecting native Russian speakers who live there.
NATO has expressed serious concern over the build-up of forces on the border, while Pope Francis on Sunday called for a lowering of tensions in eastern Ukraine and expressed anxiety over a military buildup.
‘Please! I strongly hope that an increase in tension can be avoided. On the contrary, there is a need for gestures that can promote reciprocal trust and foster reconciliation and peace, both so necessary and so desired.’
On Monday, Russian defence chiefs released videos of aerial strike training on a ‘mock enemy’.
In the footage, a MiG-31BM high-altitude fighter is seen firing an air-to-air missile and pilots practise carrying out air combat, interception and striking air targets at speeds of 1,550mph, and an altitude of 12.5 miles.
Heavyweight Tu-160 ‘White Swan’ (pictured) and Tu-95MS strategic bombers were seen in footage of aerial training exercises released by the Russian defence ministry on Monday
‘Tactical techniques were performed at high, low and extremely low altitudes,’ said the Russian defence ministry.
More footage shows heavyweight Tu-160 ‘White Swan’ and Tu-95MS strategic bombers as they take off to launch cruise missiles in exercises.
The planes are normally based in Saratov in southern Russia, but the exercises were conducted from Komi in the country’s north, far with the flights lasting seven hours, according to reports.
The Tu-160 can carry up to a dozen nuclear missiles and unleash them from a distance of 2,175 miles from their target. Il-78 refuelling aircraft were also involved.
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, warned of ‘very painful consequences’ if Putin invades as he said ‘words are not enough’ and allies would need to provide practical support.
In the footage released by the Russian defence ministry on Monday, a MiG-31BM high-altitude fighter is seen firing an air-to-air missile
He spoke following a meeting with the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – NATO allies in the region – saying ‘the four of us condemn the exacerbation of the situation by Russia.’
‘The world is on the side of Ukraine and international law, and this is one of the elements of restraining Russia from reckless actions,’ Kuleba added.
The Russian build-up comes as clashes between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed separatists have flared in the east in recent weeks, shredding a ceasefire brokered last year.
A Ukrainian soldier was killed and one more wounded in the latest bloodshed in the conflict-ridden east, the military said on Monday.
Kiev has been battling pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions since 2014, following Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.
Talks between advisers to the heads of state of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France – which have been negotiating over the conflict since 2015 – are scheduled to be held later on Monday in Kiev.