“The order to use force against civilians has already been given, and if this military machine is not stopped, the amount of casualties will only grow,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said during an official meeting in Moscow.
Shoigu said that the drills involve march and deployment exercises by forces in the southern and western military districts, and separate Air Force maneuvers.
Shoigu said that 11,000 Ukrainian soldiers, 160 tanks, 230 armored carriers and at least 150 artillery pieces are involved in the operation against anti-Kiev activists.
“National guard units and Right Sector extremists are fighting against the peaceful population, as well as a volunteer Donbass ‘anti-terrorist’ unit. Also security and internal forces transferred to Lugansk and Donetsk from other areas of the country are suppressing dissent,” the minister said.
He added that Ukrainian sabotage units have been deployed near the Russian border.
In contrast, Shoigu said that the pro-Russian self-defense units number about 2,000 and have about 100 guns between them, which have mostly been taken from local police stations.
“It’s not an evenly matched confrontation,” added Shoigu.
Reports in Ukrainian media suggested that Russia’s show of strength led Ukraine to suspend its ‘anti-terrorist’ operation, due to fears of a potential intervention. Later on Thursday, acting President Aleksandr Turchinov gave an order to resume it, accusing Moscow of “blackmail”, and demanding that Russia pull back its troops from the border.
Pro-Russian activists occupied several key government buildings in provincial towns in eastern Ukraine a fortnight ago. Last week the order was given to re-take them, and fighting has intensified in the past two days, after Turchinov blamed opposition forces of initiating a campaign of abductions and murders. Ukrainian authorities have also repeatedly stated that their opponents are funded by Moscow, and organized by infiltrator agents.
The heaviest fighting on Thursday took place in Slavyansk, with the Ukrainian interior ministry reporting the deaths of at least five ‘terrorists’.
NATO has estimated that Russia has massed at least 40,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. Moscow has not denied that it has moved troops to the region, but said that its internal troop movements are its own prerogative.
NATO began military exercises in Poland on Wednesday, with more scheduled to take place in the Baltic states next week. So far 150 US paratroopers have arrived in the country from their stationary base in Italy, with 450 more set to join them.
Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, has also asked the alliance to deploy 10,000 troops in his country.
On Wednesday, USS Taylor, a frigate, became the latest US ship to enter the Black Sea on a rotating deployment. NATO has dispatched a separate rapid reaction force to the Baltic.