General Philip Breedlove warns of renewed war as border between two countries becomes ‘completely porous’.
Ukraine-Russian border completely wide open, warns Nato commander.
Nato’s chief military commander has said that columns of Russian tanks, artillery and troops have been spotted crossing the border into Ukraine over the last two days, amid fears of a renewal of all-out conflict in the war-torn east of the country.
Moscow has denied that any columns have crossed the border and challenged Nato to produce evidence.
Philip Breedlove, the US general who is supreme allied commander Europe, speaking in the Bulgarian capital Sofia on Wednesday, said: “What worries me the most is that we have a situation now that the former international border between Ukraine and Russia is completely porous, it is completely wide open.”
He added: “Forces, money, support, supplies, weapons are flowing back and forth across this border completely at will and that is not a good situation.”
The Ukrainian government said it was redeploying its forces in preparation for a possible offensive by pro-Russian separatists.
Russia moving in tanks, artillery and troops, as well as air defence systems, could finally shatter the fragile ceasefire agreed in mid-September. There have been repeated outbreaks of violence since the ceasefire began, with the death toll in the conflict passing 4,000 since the truce was agreed.
Breedlove declined to say how information about reported Russian movements had been obtained or how many troops, tanks and armoured vehicles were involved.
A Russian Defence Ministry official in Moscow, General-Major Igor Konashenkov, said “there were and are no facts” behind such statements and that Russia had given up paying attention to such accusations by Nato.
In August the Guardian witnessed a column of 23 armoured personnel carriers crossing the border from Russia into Ukraine. Russia denied sending in troops and armour in August but said some Russians may have been there as volunteers during their holidays. A large number of Russian soldiers are among the dead in the conflict.
On Tuesday the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the crisis management group that has been monitoring events, reported that armoured columns were on the move.
“Across the last two days we have seen the same thing that OSCE is reporting. We have seen columns of Russian equipment – primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defence systems and Russian combat troops – entering into Ukraine,” Breedlove said.
He added: “We do not have a good picture at this time of how many. We agree that there are multiple columns that we have seen.”
OSCE representative Michael Bociurkiw warned that the conflict could escalate. “The level of violence in eastern Ukraine and the risk of further escalation remain high and are rising,” Bociurkiw said.
OSCE observers said on Tuesday that they had seen a convoy of 43 unmarked military trucks headed in the direction of the rebel stronghold Donetsk, five of which were towing howitzers and five rocket launchers.
The Ukrainian government reported Russian forces crossing the border last Thursday.
Ukrainian defence minister Stepan Poltorak said: “We are repositioning our armed forces to respond to the actions of the fighters.
“The main task I see is to prepare for combat operations. We are doing this: we are readying our reserves,” Poltorak said.
The Ukrainian government said one of its soldiers had been killed and two wounded from shelling in Donetsk.
The Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the country was keeping its troops on combat alert because of an increased foreign presence on its border, referring to Nato forces conducting extra training exercises in the Baltic states and elsewhere.
“In many respects it is related to the situation in Ukraine, the inflaming of anti-Russian sentiments by Nato and an increase in the foreign military presence in the immediate proximity to our borders,” Shoigu said.
Shoigu said Russia’s long-range bombers will conduct regular patrols from the Arctic Ocean to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
“In the current situation we have to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico,” Shoigu said.