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A senior NATO official said the estimate of 1,000 Russian troops in Ukraine was a conservative one, adding that another 20,000 Russian troops were right over the border. The troops who entered Ukraine had sophisticated equipment, he said.
"The hand from behind is becoming more and more overt now," Brig. Gen. Nico Tak said at NATO’s military headquarters.
Russia’s ultimate aim was to stave off defeat for the separatists and turn eastern Ukraine into a "frozen conflict" that would destabilize the country indefinitely, he said.
Russia’s ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, told the BBC that "NATO has never produced a single piece of evidence" of Russian troops operating in Ukraine. He said the only active duty Russian soldiers in Ukraine were the 10 captured this week, who Moscow insists had mistakenly wandered across the border.
Speaking in Casteau, Belgium, Tak said that in the past two weeks, "we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia’s military interference in Ukraine."
"Russia is reinforcing and resupplying separatist forces in a blatant attempt to change the momentum of the fighting, which is currently favoring the Ukrainian military," he added.
NATO also produced satellite images to provide what it called additional evidence that Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, are operating inside Ukraine’s sovereign territory. The grainy images of the terrain near Krasnodon, Ukraine, showed what appeared to be a convoy of military units with artillery, and NATO said it had "confidence the equipment is Russian."
"This is highly sophisticated weaponry that requires well-trained crews, well-trained command and control elements, and it is extremely unlikely that this sort of equipment is used by volunteers," Tak said.
He said the satellite images were only "the tip of the iceberg" in terms of the overall scope of Russian troop and weapons movements.
Southeastern Ukraine had previously escaped the fighting that has engulfed areas to the north, and the only way rebels could have reached the southeast was by coming through Russia.
If the separatists create a land corridor from Russia to Crimea, it could give them or Russia control over the entire Sea of Azov and the gas and mineral riches that energy experts believe it contains. Ukraine already lost roughly half its coastline, several major ports and significant Black Sea mineral rights in Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
In Mariupol, a city of 450,000 people about 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the west of Novoazovsk, a brigade of Ukrainian forces arrived at the airport Wednesday, while deep trenches were dug a day earlier on the city’s edge.
National Guard spokesman Ruslan Muzychuk told Associated Press reporters in the city that the government has evidence that large amounts of weapons have been brought into Novoazovsk from across the Russian border.
He added that National Guard reinforcements were taking up positions in Mariupol.
"The positions are being strengthened," the spokesman said. "The road from Novoazovsk to Mariupol is under the control of Ukrainian troops."
AP journalists on the border have seen the rebels with a wide range of unmarked military equipment — including tanks, Buk missile launchers and armored personnel carriers — and have encountered many Russians among the rebel fighters.
In Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city, 11 people were killed by shelling overnight, city officials said.
The leader of the insurgency, Alexander Zakharchenko, said in an interview on Russian state TV that up to 4,000 Russians have fought on the separatist side since the armed conflict began in April.
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