US says Russia massing troops near Ukraine

Moscow denounces US ‘smear campaign’

A woman walks by a damaged apartment building reportedly struck by a rocket, in Snizhne, about 50km east of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

A woman walks by a damaged apartment building reportedly struck by a rocket, in Snizhne, about 50km east of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

The United States has accused Russia of massing troops near Ukraine and preparing to give a high-tech missile system to separatist rebels fighting there, as Moscow and Kiev traded allegations of shelling each other’s territory.

As Russia’s condemned Washington’s alleged “smear campaign” against it, the country’s powerful investigative committee – which answers to President Vladimir Putin – claimed Kiev’s troops had tried to kill Russian law enforcement officers with mortar fire.

Douglas Lute, the US ambassador to Nato, told a security conference yesterday there were now “over about 15,000 Russian troops amassed along the border with Ukraine”.

The US and Nato have on several occasions in recent months warned that Moscow was concentrating a potential invasion force close to Ukraine, where the western-backed government is trying to crush a pro-Moscow insurgency.

Russia had pulled back troops from the frontier, but the latest claims from Nato will rattle the nerves of Kiev and its allies as tension soars again following the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people.

Kiev and Washington say the Boeing 777 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was brought down by an advanced rebel-fired missile that was probably delivered from Russia. Moscow and the separatists deny those allegations.

Advanced missile systems
The Pentagon said yesterday that Russia was ready to move advanced missile systems across the Ukrainian border to the rebels very soon, and “potentially today.”

“We have indications that the Russians intend to supply heavier and more sophisticated multiple-launch rocket systems in the very near future,” said US army colonel Steve Warren.

“We believe that they are able to transfer this equipment at any time, at any moment.”

Col Warren also said “for several days, Russian forces using Russian artillery from Russian soil have conducted attacks against Ukrainian military positions . . . This is unquestionably an escalation from a military perspective.”

Washington’s backing for Ukrainian claims of Russia firing shells across the border drew a furious reaction from Moscow, which said the US must share the blame for bloodshed in Ukraine.

Russia’s foreign ministry said the US was conducting a “smear campaign” of “unfounded public insinuations” and “anti-Russian cliches”.

It also said Washington had backed the “coup” that overthrew pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovich in February, and was encouraging Ukraine to engage in “cruel reprisals” against Russian-speakers who opposed Kiev’s new government.

“Washington fully shares the responsibility for the bloodshed. The US administration should not lay the blame on somebody else,” it said.

“It would be more honest and responsible to keep quiet if recognising the truth is difficult,” it added.

As Ukraine’s leaders tried to avert political crisis following Thursday’s collapse of the ruling coalition and resignation of pro-EU premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk, they also faced more serious accusations from Russia about alleged cross-border shelling.

Moscow’s investigative committee said Ukraine had fired mortars with deadly intent at officials examining claims of previous shelling.