Russian military equipment and combat troops entered Ukraine this week, NATO top commander has said.
“Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian combat troops” were sighted, General Philip Breedlove said.
Russia’s defense ministry denied that its troops were in eastern Ukraine to help pro-Russian separatists there.
However, the rebels have admitted being helped by “volunteers” from Russia.
The UN Security Council is convening an emergency session later on November 12 to discuss the reported sightings.
Russian military equipment and combat troops entered Ukraine
Heavy artillery fire rocked the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the industrial hub held by pro-Russian separatist rebels, on Wednesday morning.
It was unclear whether the fire came from besieging government forces or the rebels themselves, or both.
There were also reports of fighting near the rebel-held city of Luhansk. One Ukrainian soldier was killed and another injured north of Luhansk, when rebels fired on government positions near the village of Schastya, Ukrainian security forces said.
Back in August, NATO was warning about the deployment of Russian artillery batteries inside Ukraine, the supply of Russian military equipment to the rebel forces and the build-up of further Russian combat units at the Ukrainian frontier.
Since then many of these units have been withdrawn.
Now with tensions renewed, Nato’s Supreme Commander in Europe General Philip Breedlove has confirmed that over the past two days, NATO has seen columns of Russian armor, artillery and crucially – combat troops – entering Ukraine.
The question now is whether this is just a re-run of events in the summer or does a more significant clash beckon, perhaps one where the Kremlin may decide – in its terms – to teach the Ukrainians a military lesson.
Gen. Philip Breedlove also confirmed that NATO believes Russia is deploying nuclear-capable weapons to Crimea – a reference to reports that Russia is deploying short-range Iskander ballistic missiles there that could potentially be equipped with nuclear warheads.
President Vladimir Putin has ordered the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Ukraine’s border, the Kremlin says.
Units in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions should return to their permanent bases, a statement said.
Russia has made a similar statements in the past, only for NATO to report no change.
Vladimir Putin has ordered the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Ukraine’s border
Correspondents say the removal of some 40,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border could help de-escalate the Ukraine crisis.
The apparent build-up of Russian forces in the region has ratcheted up diplomatic tensions in recent weeks.
“In connection with the completion of the planned spring phase of military training… at ranges in Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions, Putin ordered the defense minister to withdraw the troops that took part in the exercises,” the Kremlin statement provided to Russian news agencies said.
Tensions between Russia and the West rose after the overthrow of pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February, following months of street protests.
Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea triggered a crisis in relations.
Meanwhile, clashes have taken place between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia separatist militants in eastern Ukraine.
One Ukrainian soldier was killed and one was injured on Monday in attack by separatists on a checkpoint near Sloviansk, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine’s Interfax news agency quoted the country’s defense ministry as saying.
On Saturday, the separatists appointed a prime minister for what they call the People’s Republic of Donetsk.
Ukraine’s government has released photos that it says show Russian soldiers among militants holding official buildings in eastern region of the country.
Handed to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) last week, the photos have since been distributed by the US state department.
They are said to show Russian soldiers or paramilitaries in flashpoint towns in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Russia denies it has military units on the ground in Donetsk.
Pro-Russian militants are holding official buildings in towns and cities in the east.
According to the Ukrainian press release, the photos show the same bearded gunman taking part in militant operations in the Donetsk towns of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk this year, and in operations in Georgia in 2008.
The US State Department has released photos purportedly showing the same bearded Russian soldier in operations in Georgia in 2008 and Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in Ukraine in 2014
However, in the 2014 photos, his greying beard appears to be black while in Georgia six years ago, the slimmer-looking man shown has a reddish beard.
Other unverified photos are said to show the same masked gunman in both Donetsk and Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed last month by Russia.
The Ukrainian press release argues that the photos are proof of a Russian special forces unit operating in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s permanent representative to the International Organizations in Vienna said the photos provided “growing evidence of Russia’s involvement in instigating and co-ordinating the separatist actions that destabilise the situation in the east of Ukraine”.
US state department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said there was “broad unity in the international community about the connection between Russia and some of the armed militants in eastern Ukraine”.
“The photos presented by the Ukrainians last week only further confirm this,” she said, adding that it was a “pivotal period” for Russia to “use their influence to de-escalate the situation in Eastern Ukraine”.
Russia has previously denied it is destabilizing Ukraine, and warned the authorities in Kiev against any use of force against pro-Russian demonstrators.
“There are no Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine,” President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday.
More than 8,000 Russian troops have begun military exercises close to the border with Ukraine.
Russian defense ministry confirmed that artillery such as rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons would also be involved in the exercises.
They come at a time of high tension ahead of Crimea’s referendum on Sunday on whether to join Russia.
Ukraine PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk has told the UN Security Council his country is a victim of Russian aggression.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk said it was “absolutely and entirely unacceptable, in the 21st Century, to resolve any kind of conflict with tanks artillery and boots on the ground”, in reference to Russian troops at key sites in Crimea.
Meanwhile, reports from the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk say at least one person has been killed and several wounded in clashes between hundreds of pro- and anti-Moscow demonstrators.
More than 8,000 Russian troops have begun military exercises close to the border with Ukraine
Russia confirmed that military exercises had begun in the regions of Rostov, Belgorod and Kursk, which are close to the border of Ukraine, and would continue until the end of March.
“The main aim… is a multi-faceted check of the units’ cohesiveness followed by the performance of battle training assignments in unfamiliar terrain and untested firing ranges,” the Russian defense ministry said.
In a sign the tension may be spreading, Belarus – a Russian ally – confirmed Moscow had deployed, at its request, extra fighter jets and military transport aircraft after Nato boosted its forces in the neighboring Baltic countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of his Security Council that this was an inter-Ukrainian crisis that “arose not through our fault, but we are involved in it, one way or another”.
He said he wanted to discuss how to “build relations with our partners and friends in Ukraine and our other partners in Europe and the United States”.
Separately, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said Russia had now given its support to a possible long-term monitoring mission in Ukraine.
Russia says it has test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, as tension continues over Ukraine’s Crimea region.
A Topol RS-12M missile was launched from Russia’s Kapustin Yar test range near the Caspian Sea to the Sary Shagan range in Kazakhstan, it said.
It comes after the US accused Russia of an “act of aggression” in Crimea.
The US said it was given advance notice of the missile launch, as required by bilateral arms treaties.
The Topol was fired at 22:10 local time, the defense ministry in Moscow said, adding: “The aim of the launch was to test a promising intercontinental ballistic missile payload.”
A Topol RS-12M missile was launched from Russia’s Kapustin Yar test range near the Caspian Sea to the Sary Shagan range in Kazakhstan
The nuclear-capable missile reached its target successfully, it said.
Tests of the missile, one of Russia’s newest, are not unusual but the timing of the launch if confirmed, is likely to alarm observers of the crisis with Ukraine.
Moscow is in de facto control of the Crimean peninsula after troops thought to be Russian or pro-Russian took control of strategic points in recent days.
Troops are surrounding Ukrainian military bases and other installations, while two Ukrainian warships are reported to be blocked by a Russian ship in the port of Sevastopol.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied the troops are Russian, saying they are “local self-defense forces” loyal to Moscow, protecting the bases from “nationalists” and “anti-Semites”.
Vladimir Putin said Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted as Ukraine’s president in late February after months of protest, remained the legitimate leader, though he admitted that he had “no political future”.
Kiev and the West have accused Russia of mounting an invasion of Crimea, which has a majority Russian-speaking population.
Russia has taken de facto armed control in Ukraine’s Crimea region, despite Western demands that it withdraw.
Thousands of Russian troops are securing the region and further armor and ship movements have been reported.
Ukraine has ordered full mobilization, issuing call-up papers and asking for more international support.
Russia says it is protecting its interests and those of Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine following the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last month.
The crisis hit Russian stock markets on Monday, with Moscow’s main MICEX index dropping 9% in early trading. The rouble fell to a fresh all-time low against the US dollar and Russia’s central bank raised its key lending rate to 7% from 5.5%.
Russia has taken de facto armed control in Ukraine’s Crimea region
Thousands of newly arrived Russian elite troops far outnumber Ukraine’s military presence with roadblocks cutting off Crimea.
Ukrainian border guards have reported a build-up of armored vehicles on the Russian side of the sea channel dividing Russia and Crimea.
Pro-Russian troops have taken over the ferry terminal in far-eastern Crimea that operates services to Russia.
There have also been further movements of Russian ships in the Black Sea – Sevastopol is the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Some mobile phone services are reported to be blocked.
Ukrainian navy commanders on Monday confirmed their loyalty to Ukraine, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported, despite an attempt by pro-Russian personnel to enter the navy HQ in Simferopol and force them to switch allegiance.
Ukraine’s interim government has called for more international support to force Russian troops to leave.
While Kiev hopes to resolve this crisis through dialogue, it is now mobilizing its military forces.
Men across Ukraine have been receiving call-up papers and will start reporting for 10 days training from Monday.