KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian authorities on Tuesday charged that Russia is sending tanks and snipers to the line of contact in war-torn eastern Ukraine to “provoke return fire,” an accusation that comes amid fears that a Russian troop buildup near the Ukrainian border might indicate plans for an invasion.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry released the statement just hours before a long-anticipated video call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which the two leaders are expected to discuss tensions over Ukraine.
The ministry alleged in the statement that Russia is holding “training camps under the leadership of regular servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces” and “reinforcing units near the contact line ... with additional 122-millimeter self-propelled artillery vehicles, tanks and infantry fighting vehicles," as well as increasing the number of sniper teams in the area.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the allegations on Tuesday, redirecting questions to Russia's Defense Ministry, which has not yet commented on the statement.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter tug-of-war since 2014, when Moscow annexed the peninsula of Crimea and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has since killed more than 14,000 people.
Ukraine and the West accused Russia of sending its troops and weapons to back the separatists, which Moscow has repeatedly denied, with the Kremlin insisting that Russia is not a party to the conflict.
Tensions have reignited again this year amid reports of a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine's border, which Ukrainian and Western officials feared could indicate Moscow's plan to invade its ex-Soviet neighbor.
U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia has massed about 70,000 troops near its border with Ukraine and has begun planning for a possible invasion as soon as early next year.
Moscow has denied plans to attack Ukraine and in turn blamed Ukraine for its own military buildup in the war-torn east, alleging that Kyiv might try to reclaim the areas controlled by the rebels by force.
At the same time, Putin has urged the West to provide guarantees that would preclude NATO from expanding to Ukraine and deploying the alliance’s weapons on its territory.