KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s president said Wednesday that Russia has maintained a massive military presence near his country’s borders.
Speaking during a meeting with a group of visiting U.S. senators, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky charged that Moscow had withdrawn only a fraction of the forces it concentrated near Ukraine in April, a buildup that worried the West as well as Ukraine.
The Russian buildup came amid regular cease-fire violations in the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and fueled fears that full-scale hostilities would resume.
The Russian military announced a pullback of its troops following the completion of drills in late April. But it ordered the troops to leave their weapons behind in southwest Russia near Ukraine for another big military exercise set for September.
Zelensky claimed Wednesday that Russia so far has withdrawn just a fraction of the more than 100,000 troops that Ukrainian officials said had been deployed near the border earlier in the spring.
“They only have pulled back about 10,000 soldiers,” Zelensky told the three U.S. senators in Kyiv. “The Russian forces’ pullback is just a declaration.”
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a senior Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy emphasized strong bipartisan support for Ukraine.
“This bipartisan trip sends a clear message that the United States is committed to rebuilding our transatlantic relations and reasserting U.S. global leadership to promote democratic values,” they said in a statement.
“We talked about the importance of increasing our ties, providing even more effective military assistance, so Ukraine can defend itself,” Portman told reporters after the talks.
Russia annexed the Black Sea’s Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014 following the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president and then threw its weight behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Seven years of fighting has killed more than 14,000 people and devastated Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, called Donbas.
A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped end large-scale battles, but skirmishes have continued along the line of contact and a political settlement has stalled. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of shoring up the rebels with troops and weapons — allegations that Moscow has denied.
The Kremlin sternly warned Ukrainian authorities against trying to reclaim control of the rebel east by force, saying it could be pushed to intervene to protect civilians there.
Moscow also has bristled at NATO’s joint drills with Ukraine, saying they reflect the alliance’s aggressive intentions and give a boost to hawkish circles in Ukraine.
Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said Wednesday that the Russian military would closely monitor NATO’s Sea Breeze exercise, which is set to be conducted jointly with Ukraine in June and July.
Konashenkov charged that the maneuvers would serve as a cover for providing Ukraine with weapons and munitions. He warned in a statement that the Russian military would follow the drills and “respond in line with the evolving situation to ensure military security of the Russian Federation.”