Rather than backing away from his support of pro-Russian separatists in the Ukraine in the wake of the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have doubled down on his designs toward the independent nation. The downing of the Boeing 777, apparently by a Buk (SA-11) missile fired by Russia-supported rebels, killed 298 passengers and crew, including 80 children. Yet Putin’s support to the rebels appears to be increasing. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has put it, Putin has “actually taken a decision to escalate.”
During a Pentagon press briefing, spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said that the U.S. military continues “to see Russian military forces gather at … the southeast border with Ukraine. I’m reticent to get into an exact figure, but it’s certainly north of 10,000 [troops], is our estimate.
“We do continue to see advanced weapons systems moving across the border being provided to the separatists, to include multiple rocket launch systems, artillery systems, tanks, and air defense systems.”
“These are combined arms-type battalion tactical groups,” Kirby continued. “What I mean by that is that they are capable across a wide spectrum of military operations, so it’s not just infantry. It’s artillery. It’s air defense. And in some cases, armored capability.
“So these are very capable, very ready forces. And they are closer to the border with Ukraine than those forces that we were talking about back in the spring, which were … farther north and along the eastern border with Ukraine.”
In addition to the build-up of Russian forces, Russia is providing increasingly powerful and sophisticated weaponry to the pro-Russian separatists.
“We do continue to see advanced weapons systems moving across the border being provided to the separatists, to include multiple rocket launch systems, artillery systems, tanks, and air defense systems,” Kirby said. “We continue to see that movement across the border, ostensibly to support the separatists.
“And we’ve been very clear – I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry was extraordinarily clear today about what our expectations are for that activity, and that it obviously needs to stop. So support for separatists continues, build-up along the southeast border continues, and we do believe that this support does include the movement of heavy weapons systems.”
Rather than slowing, Kirby said what while the build-up has not been as aggressive as earlier in the year, the pace of Russian support has recently accelerated.
“The way I would describe it is consistent … the build-up of forces has not been at the … aggressive pace that we saw in the spring, and the numbers are much lower. But it does continue.
“Ukrainian security forces have … had some success in recent days against separatists in certain areas of eastern Ukraine.”
“And then the provision of these heavy weapon systems, certainly we see that continue, as well, consistently. You know, it depends on when you want to look at a starting point. From a month ago, yes, it’s much more intense than it was a month ago, but it continues.
“And frankly, it’s – the concern for us is less the pace of it. The fact that … it continues to happen and it does nothing, again, to de-escalate tensions, it only increases the risk of violence inside Ukraine.”
Kirby said that in part, the ramp-up in Russian support may be due to Ukrainian successes against the rebels.
“Ukrainian security forces have … had some success in recent days against separatists in certain areas of eastern Ukraine,” Kirby said. “I’ve said it before. I mean, they have a responsibility to restore law and order and to defend their country.”