The Pentagon said Friday that Russia was moving troops and adding heavier artillery near its border with Ukraine where separatists are battling government forces, the latest escalation of Moscow’s involvement in the conflict.
Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said that U.S. intelligence reports showed Russia was planning to give the separatists up to a dozen 200-millimeter rocket launchers, an artillery system that is more powerful than the rebels have received before.
“We have indications that the Russians intend to supply heavier and more sophisticated multiple-launch rocket systems in the very near future,” Warren said, adding that the arms had been moved near Russia’s southwest border with Ukraine and that their movement across the border appeared “imminent.”
U.S. officials said Russia was stepping up its direct role in the conflict after gains by government forces, who claimed to have retaken the city of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine from Moscow-backed separatists. After the downing of a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine last week, President Obama had called for a cease-fire in the conflict and for Moscow to de-escalate its role.
Instead, “for the last several days, Russian forces using Russian artillery from Russian soil have conducted attacks against Ukrainian military positions,” Warren said.
The Russians also have increased their troop presence in the border region to about 12,000, he said.
“This is unquestionably an escalation from a military perspective, and it flies in the face of everything Russians have said up until now,” he said.
Russia on Friday called the U.S. accusations of Moscow's involvement in the Ukrainian conflict a "smear campaign."
A U.S. military official, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence reports, said the rocket salvos appeared aimed at preventing Ukrainian forces from regaining control of the border region southeast of the city of Donetsk.
He said that U.S. intelligence had seen nearly 100 shell craters in one area, indicating that location had been struck by a heavy barrage.
Warren said there had been several instances of rocket fire from Russia.
The Russian launchers that have been moved to the border fire multiple surface-to-surface missiles in rapid salvos and are considered less accurate than the SA-11 surface-to-air system believed responsible for downing the Malaysia Airlines jet.
"They're not precision munitions,” Warren said, "and unquestionably there is an increased risk of civilian casualties.”
Warren said that Russia has previously provided rebels with smaller rockets and other weapons but that the transfer of 200-millimeter rockets would involve the heaviest artillery so far.
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