By Matthias Williams and Robin Emmott
KYIV/BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Russia will soon have more than 120,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday, calling for new Western economic sanctions to deter Moscow from “further escalation.”
Washington and NATO have been alarmed by the large build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Western officials say the concentration of forces is now larger than during that annexation. The figure given by Kuleba is higher than Ukraine’s previous estimate of 80,000 Russian troops, of which 50,000 were new deployments.
“Russian troops continue to arrive in close proximity to our borders in the northeast, in the east and in the south. In about a week, they are expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops,” Kuleba told an online news conference.
“This does not mean they will stop building up their forces at that number,” Kuleba said, warning of what he said was Moscow’s unpredictability although he said Ukraine did not want conflict with Russia.
“The cost of preventing Russia’s further escalation will always be lower than the cost of stopping it and mitigating its consequences … It is way more effective to clearly make Moscow understand that a new stage of aggression will have dire consequences for Russia, international isolation and painful economic sanctions.”
Kuleba also called for Moscow to re-commit to a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed forces have fought Ukrainian troops in a conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014.
Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame for a rise in casualties in the conflict in recent weeks. Kuleba said Russian snipers were killing Ukrainian soldiers to provoke Ukraine to counterattack.
Russia has said its troop build-up is a three-week snap military drill to test combat readiness in response to what it calls threatening behavior from NATO. Moscow on Tuesday also accused the U.S. and NATO of “provocative activity” in the waters and airspace of the Black Sea.
Kuleba attended a video conference with EU foreign ministers and said he openly “called on colleagues to start considering a new round of sectoral sanctions against Russia”.
He said he did not feel EU ministers were ready for such a move but he told them that individual sanctions on Russian officials were insufficient.
(Editing by Alison Williams and Timothy Heritage)