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 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 Russia and Ukraine has rumbled on ever since, costing some 14,000 lives despite a series of cease-fires.
Two defense officials told NBC News there are several tens of thousands of Russian forces amassed along Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea, including troops, tanks, artillery, helicopters, fighter aircraft and naval ships in the Black Sea.
There are now nine Russian amphibious ships in the Black Sea and dozens of combat units deployed near the borders of Ukraine, one defense official said.
A second senior defense official said the buildup is “alarming” and that the presence is mainly concentrated off Ukraine’s eastern border and in the Crimean Peninsula occupied by Russia since 2014.
It’s unclear if Russia is merely flexing its muscles, trying to provoke Kyiv into a major clash or planning to move into eastern Ukraine, the defense officials and experts say.
Russian 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,” he 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.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, expressed grave concerns 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,” he 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 E.U. staff altered the number in the transcript of the briefing, saying the real figure was over 100,000.