The Pentagon said it was not entirely clear what the purpose of the presence was, despite explanations from Russian officials.
The number of Russian troops stationed in occupied Crimea near the border with Ukraine has gradually increased over the past two weeks and exceeded the number of forces that annexed the peninsula in 2014, the Pentagon said.
Military spokesman John Kirby declined to provide specific figures showing the growing presence of Russian troops.
A spokesman for Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky said last week that about 80,000 Russian troops are concentrated near the country’s borders, with 40,000 of them in Crimea.
On Monday, the EU said there are more than 100 thousand military personnel in the border areas.
“What I can say is that overall we continue to see this growth. And again, this is a concern for us,” Kirby told reporters.
“In general, over the past couple of weeks, we have seen an increase in the number of troops along the border with Ukraine in occupied Crimea,” he said.
In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, using uniformed, unmarked soldiers, and began supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Since then, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has not subsided and has already cost about 14 thousand lives, despite several truces.
Experts cannot say with certainty whether it is just a muscle game or whether Russia is trying to provoke Kyiv into a major clash.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said earlier this month that the troop buildup is part of a training exercise to increase combat readiness.
According to Kirby, the scale of the current deployment of Russian troops is “certainly greater” than the build-up that accompanied the annexation of the peninsula in 2014.
“We call on Russia to formulate its intentions more clearly. We do not believe that this build–up contributes to security and stability near the border with Ukraine, and certainly not in occupied Crimea,” Kirby said
“Of course, we have heard the statements of the Russian side that it is all about the exercises. It is not quite obvious to us that this is the goal,” he added.
A US Department of Defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, told NBC News that tens of thousands of Russian troops with tanks, artillery, and aircraft were massed on the border with Ukraine in Crimea and other regions.
Amid heightened tensions with Moscow, clashes with separatists have intensified in eastern Ukraine. On Sunday, during such skirmishes, one Ukrainian soldier was killed, and another was wounded.
Meanwhile, the United States expressed “deep concern” about Russia’s plans to block the movement of foreign ships in parts of the Black Sea, including near the occupied Crimea and the Kerch Strait.
This is stated in a statement issued by the State Department.
“Russia has repeatedly taken aggressive actions against Ukrainian vessels and prevented access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, affecting Ukraine’s international trade. This represents yet another unprovoked escalation of Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine. This development is particularly worrisome against the background of confirmed reports of a build-up of Russian troops in the occupied Crimea and on the border with Ukraine, which has not been observed since the Russian invasion in 2014, and other provocative actions by Russian-led forces on the line of contact,” the statement said.
The US Foreign Ministry reiterated its “unwavering support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, including its territorial waters.” It recalled that the United States “does not and will never recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia.”
“We pay tribute to Ukraine for its continued restraint in the face of Russian provocations and call on Russia to stop harassing vessels in the region and reverse the build–up of forces along the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea,” the statement said.