KIEV: Ukraine said Russia has thousands of troops in its conflict-ravaged east and vowed to boost its own military capacity, ratcheting up tensions Saturday after Kiev’s new coalition pledged to make joining NATO a priority.
The latest declarations from Ukraine’s defence minister threaten to provoke fresh Russian anger as the government in the former Soviet state flags its allegiance to the West ever more clearly.
Russia denies providing military support to pro-Moscow separatists fighting Ukrainian forces in the east, where nearly 1,000 people have died since a ceasefire was implemented in September.
“Unfortunately, the stabilisation of the situation in the east of Ukraine does not depend only on us,” Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak said in a statement.
“The presence of 7,500 representatives of Russian armed forces in Ukraine destabilises the situation and prevents us from stabilising it.”
Cash-strapped Ukraine also plans to “increase the strength of the armed forces” and boost levels of arms and equipment, Poltorak said, pledging this would take place “in the nearest time” but not giving a specific timeframe.
His comments came after Ukraine’s new coalition declared that joining NATO was a priority and stipulated that a law be passed by the end of the year confirming the country’s intention to push for membership.
The five-party coalition, agreed on Friday following October elections, features the groupings of President Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
NATO, a military alliance of 28 nations including the US, this week warned of a “very serious build-up” of Russian troops, artillery and air defence systems inside Ukraine and on the Russian side of the border.
In the latest batch of US assistance to Ukraine, three radar systems designed to detect incoming mortar fire were delivered Friday following a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.
A total of 20 counter-mortar radar systems are due to arrive over the next few weeks and Ukrainian troops will undergo training on them from mid-December, the Pentagon said.
President Barack Obama has so far ruled out providing weapons and ammunition to Ukraine and instead approved the delivery of “non-lethal” assistance such as radars, night vision goggles, and body armour.
Fighting in the east since April has claimed over 4,300 lives since April, the United Nations said in a report out this week. That figure includes the 298 killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in July.
In the past 24 hours, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 10 others wounded in the east, security officials in Kiev said.
One civilian, a 60-year-old man, was also killed in the eastern region of Lugansk on Friday, the governor’s office announced.
Ukraine’s military on Friday accused Russia of shelling its territory for the first time since the ceasefire was signed.
That came as Kiev marked a year since the start of protests on the city’s Independence Square which led into the ousting of the previous pro-Moscow regime, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the east.
The current situation has plunged the West’s relations with Russia to a new post-Cold War low.