Nato warns of invasion as Putin masses 20,000 soldiers along border
Russia is preparing to send troops into eastern Ukraine under the pretext of mounting a humanitarian mission to save separatist rebels, Nato and American officials warned yesterday.
The Kremlin has doubled the number of troops on its border with Ukraine to 20,000 and is conducting a week of military exercises.
Oana Lungescu, a Nato spokesman, said: "We're not going to guess what's on Russia's mind, but we can see what Russia is doing on the ground - and that is of great concern."
She said Nato was concerned that Moscow could use "the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission as an excuse to send troops into eastern Ukraine".
Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, said the threat of a Russian intervention was now "a reality" after a meeting with his senior US commanders in Stuttgart. "When you see the build-up of Russian troops and the sophistication of those troops, the training of those troops, the heavy military equipment that's being put along that border, of course it's a reality, it's a threat, it's a possibility - absolutely," he said.
The Nato statement came hours after Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York to warn that Luhansk and Donetsk were "on the brink of a humanitarian disaster" and calling for the world to "mobilise towards immediate assistance".
Pressure has been building on Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in recent days with the combination of tougher EU and US sanctions and advances made by Ukrainian government forces who are closing in on rebel strongholds.
Donetsk, the rebel-held city in eastern Ukraine, was hit by air strikes overnight, the first since Ukrainian forces bombarded the airport in May in their attempt to halt the insurgency in the industrial, broadly pro-Russian east of the country.
Photographs and video footage from the scene showed a 13ft crater in a road. A warehouse and an office building were reportedly hit.
There were no casualties, but three civilians were killed overnight by the shelling of suburbs of Donetsk, the city council said. This included two deaths already announced on Tuesday night. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Kiev's National Security and Defence Council, insisted yesterday that the Ukrainian military did not bomb built-up areas.
However, the sound of jets flying over Donetsk immediately after two loud explosions was clearly audible late on Tuesday. The airport is destroyed and the rebels do not have any planes.
"We heard and saw aircraft flying overhead," said Oleg Tsarev, a separatist leader, at a briefing in a Donetsk hotel yesterday. "We heard the explosions and we saw the craters. The Ukrainian media and leadership claim there was no attack but we are here and see what happens. And we know that Martians did not fly in to bomb us."
Many residents have fled the city, leaving its streets deserted even at rush hour. Several neighbourhoods are experiencing power cuts and have no water.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)