White House: Russian troops along Ukrainian border pose ‘very serious threat’

Ukraine’s defense minister said Friday there will be a “bloody massacre” if Russia intervenes in the country’s crisis, after Ukraine placed more than 250,000 troops on high alert to defend itself in response to alleged Russian provocations in eastern regions.

Secretary of State John Kerry also expressed alarm about Russia’s actions against Ukraine, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is blatantly violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Kerry said the U.S. and other countries that use the European Union and NATO forces are all preparing to go after any Russians carrying out provocations against Ukraine.

“We see the Russians doing what they can to try to de-escalate and to make it look like there is a peaceful solution to this,” Kerry said. “But the Russians are trying to provoke a crisis.”

The German government sent a message to Russia on Thursday that there will be serious consequences for any attack on Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Berlin to meet with Putin, said Russia is showing excessive interference.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. has seen reports of Russian troops massing near Ukraine, and that it is a concern that “if that were to lead to Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, there is a credible threat that that could ultimately lead to a military conflict.”

“The strength of our response depends on what Russia actually does,” Earnest said.

The U.S. has halted visa issuance to Russian officials and given broad sanction powers to the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments.

The 17-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is deploying a 20-member monitoring mission to Ukraine’s east.

“We are concerned that in the eyes of the separatists, Russia has not reversed course, that Russia has not withdrawn its troops from the border, and that in fact the situation is continuing to deteriorate,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the international security program at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and head of the OSCE mission.

Earlier Friday, Defense Minister Valery Heletey told the lawmakers in Kyiv that he and the acting president have taken more than 250,000 troops, including about 30,000 paratroopers, to high alert as a precaution against possible hostilities.

“We have built up a very large force, many thousands of reservists as well,” Heletey said. “They are ready to work in the eastern regions of the country.”

Russian news agencies had reported Thursday that Moscow was sending 20,000 troops to the Ukrainian border, where he said troops were gathered. But the defense minister said the reports of Russian troops reinforcements had been exaggerated.

“No, there are no such numbers,” Heletey said. “But we are keeping a close eye on developments in this direction.”

Heletey added that Ukraine continues to call on Russia to withdraw its troops from the border area.

“I repeat: Ukrainian military has no plans to attack Russian troops,” he said. “We have our own soldiers ready to protect our border.”

Heletey also said the same border zone where Russia has deployed forces was where Ukrainian troops will be stationed at the next meeting of the Contact Group.

The Crimean Peninsula was annexed by Russia in March.

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