Washington has condemned the ‘unprovoked escalation’ of Russian plans to block the Black Sea, which could prevent access to Ukrainian ports.
Russian state media have reported that Moscow intends to close parts of the Black Sea to foreign military and official ships for six months.
Such a move could affect access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, which is connected to the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait, on the eastern tip of the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
‘This represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize Ukraine,’ State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on Monday.
‘This development is particularly troubling amid credible reports of Russian troop buildup in occupied Crimea and around Ukraine’s borders, now at levels not seen since Russia’s invasion in 2014,’ he added.
The naval blockade comes as more than 150,000 troops have been deployed along the Ukrainian border and in the Crimea where a new military camp was revealed by satellite imagery.
Military sources in Kiev last night revealed they were now fearing a Russian assault on water facilities which provide running water to people living in the south.
Satellite images of an area next to Kachyk Lake in Crimea have revealed a new Russian military camp (right) and sub-camp (left) which have been constructed between March 15 and April 13 amid a wider troop build-up on the Ukraine border
Four Russian Ropucha class ships have gathered in the Black Sea, joining forces with more than 15 other warships, The Mirror reported, citing ‘military sources’ [File photo]
Ukrainian troops taking part in tank drills close to the frontier of the disputed Donbass region in eastern Ukraine
Four Russian Ropucha class ships have gathered in the Black Sea, joining more than 15 other warships, in preparation for an attack, The Mirror reported.
‘Ukrainian military take these ships very seriously,’ an Ukrainian officer told the paper.
‘We estimate one of the Russian scenarios could be an amphibious and air assault from occupied Crimea to seize water supply facilities in south Ukraine to provide water to Crimea.’
The newspaper reported sources as saying the ‘most likely’ attack plan would be a maritime and land assault on southern Ukraine from Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Poor weather may have delayed any potential land attack by several weeks.
Following Russia’s invasion, Ukraine cut off much of the water supply to Crimea, creating a dire shortage.
On Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell confirmed there are more than 150,000 troops along the Ukrainian border and in Crimea following talks involving Ukraine’s foreign ministry.
‘It is the highest Russian military deployment at Ukrainian borders ever,’ he said, adding: ‘The risk of further escalation, it’s evident.’
Moscow’s military says it is conducting exercises along its frontier in response to moves by Western military alliance NATO that ‘threaten Russia’.
In the footage released by the Russian defence ministry on Monday, a MiG-31BM high-altitude fighter is seen firing an air-to-air missile
Military analyst Bruce Jones told The Mirror it was ‘extremely rare’ for amphibious assault ships like the Ropuchas – which can offload tanks and thousands of troops – to join other military craft.
‘It is unprecedented for such a large number of landing ships from so many different Russian fleets to assemble.
‘Vessels such as these were deployed during the 2008 invasion of Georgia to great effect and were used to land special forces and commandos.
‘This happened on Georgian beaches and it happened very quickly.’
Jones told the paper that, if not intended for an offensive, gathering such ships together is an ‘extremely costly’ exercise’.
Ukraine is pushing the West for more practical support as it looks to deter any further aggression from Moscow.
Images of the camp show thousands of vehicles in fenced-off pens (right) alongside infantry tents (left) which have been organised into rows
The images are the first to be taken of new Russian camps in Crimea after Ukraine warned there are now more than 40,000 of Putin’s troops on the peninsula – with another 40,000 thought to be on the mainland
This image shows a nearby sub-camp, located around a mile west of the main base and on the shores of the lake, which is mainly comprised of vehicles with just a few infantry tents nearby
Kiev’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pressed the EU to prepare ‘a new set of sectoral sanctions’ against Russia in talks with his counterparts from the 27-nation bloc on Monday.
But Borrell said that there were currently no further sanctions being proposed or under consideration.
Observers have also suggested the unannounced build-up could be designed as a test for Joe Biden, as Putin attempts to get the measure of his new counterpart.
Biden has called for the Russian president to ‘de-escalate’ tensions and proposed a summit which could take place in Finland in the coming months.
The move has been hailed as a win by Moscow, after Biden previously took a hard line against Putin – calling him ‘a killer’ and refusing to meet with him on the basis that he was too busy.
As well as seeking support from the US, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has turned to his European allies, last week meeting with France’s President Emanuel Macron in Paris and speaking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel via videolink.
The pair pledged their backing for Ukraine, but offered little in the way of practical support.
Meanwhile, the UK has offered to send two warships to the Black Sea as a warning to Putin, according to leaked documents, after the US cancelled the deployment of two of its own vessels to the region.