Russia Expands Troop Buildup on Ukraine Border

In this photo taken Monday, March 24, 2014, a Ukrainian border guard, right, and Russian border guards, background, stand at the crossing between Ukraine and Russia in the village of Vyselki, eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Russia has bolstered its forces on Ukraine's eastern borders in defiance of NATO and pledges to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Pentagon's chief spokesman said Thursday.

"They continue to reinforce and it's unclear what the intent is," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary. Kirby declined to give estimates on the size of the Russian force or comment directly on the charge by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, that the Russians have 80,000 troops amassed on the border.

On background, White House officials have estimated the size of the Russian force in the range of 30,000 troops.

Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Commander, warned Sunday that "the [Russian] force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizeable and very, very ready."

In a letter to Hagel released by his office, Turner called on the Pentagon to "immediately provide Congress and make public known Russian military activity along the Ukrainian border."

In a separate statement Thursday, Turner, chairman of the Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, said "we've seen the buildup of up to 80,000 additional Russian troops along with large amounts of armored ground vehicles, battle tanks, artillery systems as well as rotary and fixed wing aircraft."

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu have stated that the Russian troops were engaged in "spring exercises" and there were no designs for a repeat of the Crimea takeover in eastern Ukraine.

Kirby referred to the phone call last week between Hagel and Shoygu in which Shoygu said the "exercises" were winding down and there was no intent to invade Ukraine.

"Certainly, they have amassed troops on that border. Even if this is exercises, it's doing nothing to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine," Kirby said. "In that regard, it's a matter of deep concern."

The U.S. was focusing on stepping up diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia and there was "nothing in the works" at present on changing the alignment of the 67,000 U.S. troops in Europe, Kirby said.

In a speech in Belgium on Wednesday, President Obama sought to rally European leaders behind a graduated series of economic sanctions in an effort to deter Russia.

To date, the U.S. military response has been limited to sending six F-15C fighters to Lithuania for air patrols over the Baltic states and 12 F-16 fighters to Poland to join already scheduled military exercises.

"We will be increasing our rotations of ground and naval forces to NATO allies to complement those aviation deployments," said deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who was traveling with Obama.

"Clearly, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia have been a focus for us," Rhodes said. "But we're looking broadly across our NATO alliance and particularly our allies in the East. And our intent is to provide them with concrete reassurance and collective self-defense planning."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@monster.com

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