The announcement of the troop buildup by Russia’s Defense Ministry was met with an unusually sharp rebuke from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who warned that the Russian government must abandon what she called the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries or face diplomatic and economic retaliation from a united Europe.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” she said in a speech to the German Parliament. “We, also as neighbors of Russia, would not only see it as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union’s relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.”
Ms. Merkel’s words reflected the rapid evolution of the Ukraine crisis from a regional conflict to a full-blown East-West confrontation that threatens a deep rupture in relations between Moscow and an increasingly unified European Union and the United States. That a leader of Germany, which has traditionally sought to bridge the East-West divide, should speak so forcefully was a further indication of the seriousness and depth of the potential breach.
In a congressional appearance on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that Russia had not yet made the military preparations to undertake a full-scale invasion of all of Ukraine, though he stressed “that could change very quickly and we recognize that.”
Mr. Kerry said his hope was “not to create hysteria or excessive concern about that at this point of time.”
“Our hope is to be able to avoid that,” he added. “But there’s no telling that we can.”
Mr. Kerry will meet his counterpart from Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, on Friday in London, seeking a way to de-escalate the crisis.
As Russia turned up the heat, the United States was trying to tamp it down. An American official said that the Obama administration had deferred a request from Ukraine’s interim government for military assistance like arms and ammunition, although the administration was “still considering” it. The Ukrainian request and administration response were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Asked about Russia’s military moves, a senior State Department official said, “We’re very concerned.”
“It certainly has created an environment of intimidation,” said the official, who cannot be identified under the agency’s protocol for briefing reporters. “It certainly is destabilizing.” Mr. Kerry plans to ask for an explanation of the military moves when he meets with Mr. Lavrov, the official said. Mr. Kerry said in testimony on Thursday that further sanctions would be announced Monday if the referendum went forward on Sunday. “There will be costs if the referendum goes forward,” the official said. If Russia escalates the crisis further, those costs will be increased, the official added.
Until Thursday, the Russian military actions had been largely confined to asserting control over the Crimean peninsula, the largely Russian-populated area in southern Ukraine that took steps a week ago to secede and join Russia after the ouster of the pro-Kremlin government in Ukraine last month. A Crimean referendum, which Ukraine, the United States and the European Union have called illegal, is set to ratify that decision on Sunday.
But the buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia signaled possible further moves by the Kremlin to reassert authority by force over territory, also heavily populated by Russians, forfeited in the Soviet Union breakup two decades ago.
Underscoring the potential gravity of the troop movements, Russia’s senior commander, Valery V. Gerasimov, spoke by telephone with his NATO counterpart, Gen. Knud Bartles of Denmark, the news agency Interfax reported, citing a defense source. The details of the conversation were not disclosed.
In a further sign of a military buildup, Russian news agencies said the Defense Ministry had ordered six Sukhoi-27 fighter jets and three transport planes to Belarus, a Russian ally, to fend off what the Belarus president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, called a potential NATO threat. The Belarus deployment came after NATO sent 12 F-16 fighters to Poland last week.
Oleksandr V. Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting president, said in a statement on his official website that he believed Russian forces massed near the border were “ready to intervene in Ukraine at any time,” and that he hoped diplomatic efforts by Ukraine and sympathetic nations would “stop the aggression.”
In Moscow, the military acknowledged significant operations involving armored and airborne troops in the Belgorod, Kursk and Rostov regions abutting eastern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians have protested the new interim government in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and appealed to Moscow for protection.
A day after a deputy minister denied any military buildup on the border, the Defense Ministry released a series of statements beginning early on Thursday that appeared to contradict that. They outlined what was described as intensive training of units involving artillery batteries, assault helicopters and at least 10,000 soldiers.
The operations confirmed, at least in part, assertions by Ukrainian leaders on Wednesday that Russia was massing forces. Amateur photographs appeared to show columns of armored vehicles and trucks in a border village called Lopan, only 30 miles from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. One statement announced that another 1,500 paratroopers from Ivanovo, east of Moscow, had parachuted onto a military base in Rostov, not far from the Ukrainian cities Donetsk and Luhansk.
Donetsk in particular has been a flash point of tensions over the past few weeks, with competing demonstrations by pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine supporters erupting in violence. On Thursday night, the first death was reported, as several dozen supporters of the interim government in Kiev were attacked by opponents during a rally on a central Donetsk square.
The ouster of the government of Viktor F. Yanukovych in February and Russia’s subsequent intervention in Crimea have deeply divided Russia and the West, and in Berlin, Ms. Merkel underscored the potential risks, declaring that “the territorial integrity of Ukraine cannot be called into question.”
As Russia’s largest trading partner in Europe, Germany is certain to have significant influence on the debate over how to respond to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Some politicians and observers in other European countries and in the United States have suggested that Germany’s close trading and other ties with Russia had made it hesitant to adopt sanctions against Russia.
Ms. Merkel’s speech, however, suggested that President Vladimir V. Putin might have miscalculated the anger that the occupation and annexation of Crimea would cause — or that he might be impervious to it.
Mr. Putin, who has remained in Sochi to attend the Paralympics there, has so far showed no sign of bending to international criticism. In a meeting on Wednesday with the directors of national Paralympic teams, he implicitly reiterated the Kremlin’s argument that the ouster of Mr. Yanukovych was an armed coup instigated by outside forces. “I would like to assure you that Russia was not the initiator of the circumstances we are now facing,” Mr. Putin said.
n her remarks, Ms. Merkel rejected any comparison between the situation in Crimea today and that in Kosovo in the late 1990s, when NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days to halt the attacks on Kosovo Albanians by Serbian forces.
Ms. Merkel was clear that Germany would go along with the other 27 states of the European Union, and the United States, if Russia did not open meaningful diplomatic talks and the West moved to freeze Russian accounts and impose travel bans or restrictions on leading Russian figures.
“To make it unmistakably clear,” she said, “nobody wants it to come to that.”