SIMFEROPOL, Crimea – U.S. and Ukrainian officials warned Sunday that Russia may be poised to expand its territorial conquest into eastern Ukraine and beyond, with a senior NATO official saying that Moscow might even order its troops to cross Ukraine to reach Moldova. The warnings came as Russia was finalizing its takeover of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, the peninsula it occupied at the start of March and subsequently annexed.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya said the prospect of war with Russia is growing.
“We don’t know what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has in his mind and what would be his decision,” Deshchytsya said. “That’s why this situation is becoming even more explosive than it used to be a week ago.”
In Brussels, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, said Russia had assembled a large force on Ukraine’s eastern border that could be planning to head for Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region, 200 miles away. Ukrainian officials have been warning for weeks that Russia is trying to provoke a conflict in eastern Ukraine, a charge that Russia denies. But Breedlove said Russian ambitions do not stop there.
“There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” Breedlove said.
A drive into Transnistria would mark an extraordinary deepening of Russia’s military thrust into former Soviet territory and sharply escalate tensions with the West. Transnistria, a narrow strip of land about the size of Rhode Island, wedged between the rest of Moldova and southern Ukraine, proclaimed its independence in 1990. Its population went on to vote in 2006 to seek eventual unification with Russia.
Although those moves were not recognized internationally, the region has its own constitution and currency, and pro-Russian sentiment there runs high. About 1,200 Russian troops are stationed in the territory – fewer than were in Crimea, the site of a key Russian naval base, before the current crisis began.
In Washington, a senior Defense Department official said it was “difficult to know what (Russia’s) intent is; they’re not exactly being transparent.”
During a conversation Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu assured U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Russian troops on the Ukrainian border were merely conducting a regular “spring” exercise and that Russia had no intention of sending the forces across the international line, the U.S. official said.
But at the same time, the official said, “They have enough troops close enough and, most likely, ready enough that we would have very little notice” if they decided to move farther outside Russia.
Russian news services quoted Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov as saying Sunday that Russia is complying with all international agreements on troop limits near its border with Ukraine.
In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, members of a visiting U.S. congressional delegation said Ukrainian officials were determined to prevent any further Russian incursion into their territory.
“This would be no Crimea,” Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said at a news conference, adding that Putin would find himself having to explain why young Russian men were coming home in coffins. “Ukraine is ready to fight.”
Russia’s forces are on the verge of completing a methodical takeover of Ukrainian military bases scattered across Crimea. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Saturday that the Russian flag is flying over 189 military installations on the peninsula.
The last base that was functioning under full Ukrainian authority came under Moscow’s control Saturday, when Russian troops stormed an air base at Belbek outside the port city of Sevastopol.
Col. Yuli Mamchur, the base commander whose defiance of the Russians had come to symbolize Ukrainian resistance to the annexation of Crimea, is unaccounted for.