EU warns ‘spark’ could set off escalation at Ukraine borders

The European Union’s top diplomat has said that in the face of the big military build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders, it would only take “a spark” to set off a confrontation.

Josep Borrell said after a virtual meeting of the EU foreign ministers that the massing of Russian troops, including military field hospitals, was a “matter of concern”.

“It is the highest military deployment of the Russian army on the Ukrainian borders ever. It’s clear that it’s a matter of concern when you deploy a lot of troops,” Borrell said. “Well, a spark can jump here or there.”

In Washington, the Pentagon said the Russian military build-up was larger than that in 2014 and it was not clear that it was for training purposes.

A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Russian build-up numbered in the tens of thousands but was not aware of intelligence that pointed to more than 150,000 Russian troops.

The United States also expressed its “deep concern” over Russia’s plans to block foreign naval ships and other vessels in parts of the Black Sea, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

“This represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilise Ukraine,” Price said.

The EU’s foreign policy chief also told reporters that “there’s more than 150,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea,” and doubled down on the figure later before his services had to correct it in the transcript, saying the real figure was more than 100,000.

Nevertheless, Borrell said that it was “evident” there was risk of further escalation.

Borrell declined to say where he got the initial 150,000 Russian troop number from, but called it “my reference figure”. It was higher than the 110,000 estimate provided by Ukrainian Defence Minister Andriy Taran on Wednesday.

The military build-up has sparked fears of an imminent escalation in the years-long conflict that has racked eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists since the rebels seized a swath of territory there in April 2014.