The Complex

Pentagon: Russia Could Move Heavier Weapons Into Ukraine ‘Imminently’

This story has been updated. New information on Russian troop levels at the Ukrainian border was added. Russia is seeking to escalate the conflict in Ukraine and could move larger, more sophisticated multiple-launch rocket systems into the country to support the separatist rebels as early as Friday, July 25, the Pentagon warns. "We believe that ...

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images
Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images

This story has been updated. New information on Russian troop levels at the Ukrainian border was added.

Russia is seeking to escalate the conflict in Ukraine and could move larger, more sophisticated multiple-launch rocket systems into the country to support the separatist rebels as early as Friday, July 25, the Pentagon warns.

"We believe that they’re able to transfer this equipment at any time, at any moment," Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters on Friday.

The United States has been tracking a continual flow of weapons moving across the border and into the hands of pro-Russian separatists over the last several weeks.

"We know that they’ve transferred tanks, artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems," Warren said. "We have indications that the Russians plan to move larger-caliber rocket systems to the Ukrainian separatists."

There has also been a steady buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine. The U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, told the Aspen Security Forum Friday that 15,000 Russian troops were amassed along the border with Ukraine.

U.S. officials say that Putin had 28,000 troops deployed along the Russian-Ukrainian border earlier this year, but withdrew all but roughly 1,000 of the soldiers in the run-up to June ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Since then, however, Putin has returned roughly 15,000 troops to the border, effectively restoring half of the initial drawdown. 

As for the movement or transfer of surface-to-air missile systems, like the one that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, the Pentagon has no new information. Senior U.S. intelligence officials said this week that they couldn’t confirm that the SA-11 missile system that fired on the airliner has been removed from Ukraine, either by the separatists or by Russian forces.

Still, "we’re very concerned with the quantity and capability of the weapons flowing from Russia into the Ukrainian separatists’ hands," Warren said.

Not only is Russia moving heavier weapons into Ukraine, but it has also been shelling Ukrainian military positions from the Russian side of the border for several days, according to U.S. officials.

"There have been several instances of indirect attacks against Ukrainian military positions," Warren said. "This is unquestionably an escalation from a military perspective, and it flies in the face of everything the Russians have said up ’til now about their desire to contribute to de-escalation."

The U.S. intelligence community has known about this development for several days but only decided to declassify the information on Thursday, according to Warren. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was the first to discuss it publicly.

Russia continues to deny the allegations coming from the United States and Ukraine. A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington told the Wall Street Journal: "Unfortunately, it is not for the first time that we hear unproven allegations…. In fact, it is the Russian territory that is being shelled from the Ukraine."

On Wednesday, the Pentagon confirmed that two Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jets had been shot down near the border with Russia.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen

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