WASHINGTON — The number of Russian troops deployed in occupied Crimea near Ukraine’s border has steadily increased over the past two weeks and has surpassed the size of the force that annexed the peninsula in 2014, the Pentagon said on Monday.
Press secretary John Kirby declined to provide specific numbers on the growing Russian troop presence. A spokesperson for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said last week there are about 80,000 troops now stationed along the country’s border with Russia, 40,000 of them in Crimea. On Monday, the European Union said there were now over 100,000 in border regions.
“What I can tell you is, in general, we have continued to see this buildup increase. And again, that is concerning to us,” Kirby told reporters.
“In the main, over the last couple of weeks, we have continued to see an increase in the forces along the border with Ukraine in occupied Crimea,” he said.
Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014 using troops in unmarked uniforms and also began supporting separatists in Ukraine's east. The conflict between Russian and Ukraine has rumbled on ever since, costing some 14,000 lives despite a series of ceasefires.
Experts say it’s unclear if Russia is merely flexing its muscles or trying to provoke Kyiv into a major clash.
Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said earlier this month that the troop buildup was part of readiness drills in response to what he called threatening activities by the United States and its NATO allies.
The Russian troop deployment “is certainly bigger” than the buildup that accompanied the annexation of the peninsula in 2014, Kirby said.
"We call on Russia to obviously make their intentions more clear. We don’t believe that this buildup is conducive to security and stability along the border with Ukraine, and certainly not in occupied Crimea,” Kirby said.
“We certainly heard the Russians proclaim that this is all about training. It's not completely clear to us that that’s exactly the purpose,” he added.
A U.S. Defense official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told NBC News several tens of thousands of Russian troops have amassed on the border with Ukraine in Crimea and other regions, with the buildup including tanks, artillery and aircraft.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, expressed grave concerns on Monday about the Russian troop presence.
“It is the highest military deployment of the Russian army on the Ukrainian borders ever. It’s clear that it’s a matter of concern when you deploy a lot of troops,” Borrell said. “Well, a spark can jump here or there.”
Borrell initially told reporters more than 150,000 Russian troops were massing on Ukrainian borders. But later EU staff altered the number in the transcript of the briefing, saying the real figure was over 100,000.