Analysis: Russian military buildup raises stakes as fighting in Ukraine intensifies

By Anton Zverev, Matthias Williams and Jonathan Landay

MOSCOW/KYIV/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Dozens of troop carriers and missile launchers sit on flatbed wagons lining up along tracks running through southern Russia, in a region bordering Ukraine.

Tanks are parked in columns beside the railway, which runs parallel to the M4 highway. Military trucks rumble past, heading toward the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, close to the border.

Ukraine and Western countries accuse Russia of sending troops and heavy weapons to support proxy fighters who seized a swathe of the eastern Donbass region in 2014.

Moscow denies it is part of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and says it provides only humanitarian and political support to the separatists.

The recent deployment of hardware close to Ukraine’s border, captured this week on video seen by Reuters, is what a source close to both the Kremlin and to pro-Russian separatists said was a deliberate show of force at a time of rising tensions between the former Soviet states.

Two sources close to separatist leaders in Donbass said skirmishes were increasing around the separatist-held city of Donetsk, and Kyiv has reported that five of its soldiers have been killed in fighting there this week.

But the military buildup is not a sign of a major escalation in the conflict, according to the source and the two people close to the separatists.

“Moscow is doing it openly, deliberately uncovering tanks in the daytime. This is not how war is prepared, this is just a show of strength,” said the source close to the Kremlin and to separatists.

When asked about the footage of military equipment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined comment and referred Reuters to the Defense Ministry. The Defense Ministry did not reply to requests for comment.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has displayed caution.

Since the build-up, it has said it is ready to defend itself against any attack in its eastern Donbass region, a mainly Russian-speaking area that fell to pro-Russian separatists who attacked in 2014.

Kyiv says 14,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

Washington and the NATO alliance have accused Russia of a “provocative” build-up, with unverified images of army trucks and missile launchers, taken from the ground and by satellite, widely circulating on social media.

For its part, Russia accuses Ukraine of unspecified provocation and says it can move military assets around its country as it sees fit.

A senior U.S. administration official said they believed Russia’s mobilization was meant to test Zelenskiy and also perhaps challenge the resolve of the administration of President Joe Biden, who pledged “unwavering support” for his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy last week.

Ukraine is no military match for Russia and it sits outside the NATO alliance. Kyiv lost its Black Sea region of Crimea to Russian troops in 2014 without a fight.

Ukraine turns to the United States and the European Union for support against Russia, but beyond sanctions it is unclear what it can expect from its Western allies. Many years of lobbying for NATO membership have yet to bear fruit.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the threat of further economic sanctions by the West looms if countries deem Russia responsible for stoking the conflict.

Russian state banks and oil firms have been hit hard with U.S.-led sanctions, and, while reserves remain healthy at $575 billion, they could take a significant hit if the punishments are harsh.

Ukrainian security chief Oleksiy Danilov told Reuters he believed Putin was using the military build-up to distract Russians from an internal opposition movement led by jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, ahead of September parliamentary elections.

“Today we are calculating all scenarios from the most critical to the most light, and I emphasize once again – it all depends on Putin,” Danilov said on Wednesday.

Peskov denied there was any link to internal opposition, adding that Russia had to be cautious towards its “restless” neighbor Ukraine while repeating that the military build-up should not be a worry to anyone.

(Writing by Mark Bendeich. Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Sergiy Karazy in Kyiv)

Philippine officials say China blocked access to disputed South China Sea atoll

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) – China sent several ships to a disputed atoll in the South China Sea, preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing traditional fishing grounds and raising tensions in the volatile region, Philippine officials said on Wednesday.

China had sent as many as seven ships to Quirino Atoll, also known as Jackson Atoll, in recent weeks, said Eugenio Bito-onon Jr, the mayor of nearby Pagasa Island in the Spratly Islands.

The Spratlys are the most contested archipelago in the South China Sea, a resource-rich region and critical shipping lane linking North Asia to Europe, South Asia and the Middle East.

“This is very alarming, Quirino is on our path when we travel from Palawan to Pagasa. It is halfway and we normally stop there to rest,” Bito-onon told Reuters.

“I feel something different. The Chinese are trying to choke us by putting an imaginary checkpoint there. It is a clear violation of our right to travel, impeding freedom of navigation,” he said.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China’s Ministry of Transport had sent vessels to tow a grounded foreign ship and they had since left the surrounding waters.

“To guarantee safety of navigation and of work conditions, China urged fishing vessels near the site to leave,” Hong said, adding that China had indisputable sovereignty over the atoll.

The Philippines Foreign Ministry said Chinese coast guard vessels had been seen at the atoll two weeks ago but were not in the area on Wednesday.

“The Department is monitoring reports on the situation on the ground and reiterates its call for China to exercise self-restraint from the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes in the South China Sea and affect peace and stability in the region,” the ministry said in a statement.


Earlier, the Philippine military said it was looking into the situation around Jackson Atoll, where a Chinese warship allegedly fired warning shots at Filipino fishermen in 2011.

“We know there are Chinese ships moving around the Spratly area,” spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told Reuters. “There are also ships around Second Thomas Shoal, so we want to make sure if the presence is permanent.”

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said it was trying to confirm the latest reported incident.

Mark Toner told a regular news briefing that the United States, a treaty ally of the Philippines that has repeatedly expressed concerns about Beijing’s methods in pursuit of maritime claims, did not want to China using its ships “to intimidate … fishing vessels in that region.”

Second Thomas Shoal is where the Philippine navy has been occupying and reinforcing a rusting ship it ran aground in 1999 to bolster its claims to the disputed reef.

A military source from Palawan said a surveillance plane had seen four to five ships in the vicinity of Jackson Atoll last week.

“There are no indications China will build structures or develop it into an island,” said the source, who was not authorized to speak to the media about the South China Sea.

The Philippines Star newspaper, which earlier reported the story, quoted an unidentified fisherman as saying Chinese boats chased them away when they tried to enter the area last week.

Along with China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the waters, through which about $5 trillion in trade is shipped every year.

Tensions have been building recently, with the United States and others expressing concerns about China’s land reclamation in the Spratly Islands and deployment of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets in the Paracel Islands.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned China on Tuesday against what he called “aggressive” actions in the region, saying there would be “specific consequences” to militarization of the South China Sea.

In response, Hong urged Washington on Wednesday to “stop exaggerating and sensationalizing” the issue.

For its part, Beijing has been angered by “freedom of navigation” air and sea patrols the United States has conducted near the islands it claims in the South China Sea and says it needs military facilities for its self defense.

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Adam Rose in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Lincoln Feast and John Chalmers; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Peter Cooney)