WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russia has more troops on Ukraine’s eastern border than at any time since 2014, when it annexed Crimea and backed separatist territory seizures, and the United States is concerned by growing “Russian aggressions,” the White House said on Thursday.
The United States is discussing its concerns with its NATO allies, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told a briefing.
The Russian buildup has become the latest point of friction in icy relations between Moscow and U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, adding to disputes over arms control, human rights and other issues.
Biden last week expressed “unwavering support” for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in his confrontation with Russia, which in 2014 annexed the Crimea peninsula and backed separatists who seized large parts of the eastern Donbas region.
Russia has said its troops are no threat and are defensive, but they would remain as long as the Kremlin sees fit.
Psaki said that the United States “is increasingly concerned by recent escalating Russian aggressions in eastern Ukraine, including Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s border.”
“Russia now has more troops than at any time since 2014,” Psaki added, saying that five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the past week.
Psaki did not elaborate on the number of Russian troops deployed on Ukraine’s border. But it was the first time that the Biden administration has given a description of the scale of the buildup.
In March 2014, as the conflict in eastern Ukraine escalated, Western estimates put the number of Russian troops, militia or special forces on Ukraine’s border at 25,000 to more than 30,000.
Psaki’s comments followed by hours a telephone call in which Chancellor Angela Merkel of NATO member Germany demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin pull his troops back to de-escalate the situation.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal and Jonathan Landay. Editing by Franklin Paul and Will Dunham)