(CNSNews.com) – NATO reaffirmed early Friday that commercial satellite images it released a day earlier showing a Russian troop buildup on Ukraine’s border had been taken within the three weeks, after a senior Russian military officer was quoted in state media as claiming they were from routine military exercises eight months ago.
“They were taken between late March and early April 2014, as dates on pics show,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said on her Twitter account, responding to a tweeted query asking whether they were taken last summer.
The images released by NATO’s Allied Command Operations headquarters in Belgium showed vehicles and aircraft, some in what appear to be open fields or other temporary sites, some as close at 30 miles from the Ukraine border.
NATO said the assets pictured included tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 Flanker fighter jets, Mil Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter gunships, Mil Mi-8 Hip transport helicopters, and a Spetznaz special forces brigade.
The stated location of the helicopters, for instance, is Belgorod, only about 25 miles from the border and 50 miles from Kharkiv, one of several eastern Ukrainian city where pro-Russian demonstrators seized government building early this week.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday accused Russian agents and special forces of being “the catalyst behind the chaos,” telling a Senate panel the unrest “could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention, just as we saw in Crimea.”
The pictures released by NATO were obtained by Digital Globe, a commercial satellite imaging company, and carried dates between March 22 and April 2.
“The Russians have an array of capabilities including aircraft, helicopters, special forces, tanks, artillery, infantry fighting vehicles … and these could move in a matter of hours,” Brig. Gary Deakin, director of NATO’s comprehensive crisis operations and management center, told reporters.
“These forces have a destabilizing effect and present serious implications for the security and stability of the region,” he said.
The alliance said it continues to monitor events closely and has increased AWACS surveillance flights over Romania and Poland for that purpose.
Hours after NATO released the images, Moscow’s RIA Novosti state news agency quoted an unnamed official in the Russian military general staff as saying they were not recent, but taken last August.
“These shots, which were distributed by NATO, show Russian armed forces units of the southern military district, which in the summer of last year were taking part in various drills, including near the Ukrainian border,” the official said.
In Prague on Thursday, NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there were 40,000 Russian troops amassed near Ukraine’s border – “not training but ready for combat.”
We have seen the satellite images, day after day,” he said.
“Russia is stirring up ethnic tensions in eastern Ukraine and provoking unrest,” he continued. “And Russia is using its military might to dictate that Ukraine should become a federal, neutral state. That is a decision which only Ukraine, as a sovereign state, can make. Nobody else.”
Rasmussen said his message to Russia was, “You have a choice: To stop blaming others for your own actions, to stop massing your troops, to stop escalating this crisis and start engaging in a genuine dialogue. If Russia is serious about a dialogue, the first step should be to pull back its troops.”
For its part, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement the NATO secretary-general’s accusations “convince us that the alliance is trying to use the crisis in Ukraine to rally its ranks in the face of an imaginary external threat to NATO members and to strengthen demand for the alliance.”
Black Sea arrivals
Meanwhile the Russian defense ministry accused NATO of building up its naval presence in the Black Sea, citing the arrival in the area of the destroyer USS Donald Cook, and the imminent arrival of a French Navy destroyer and reconnaissance vessel.
A ministry “source” told the ITAR-Tass news agency that NATO was building a presence in the Black Sea for the first time since 2008 – a reference to deployments in the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, when the U.S. used military ships and planes to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia.
According to Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren told reporters this week the mission of the USS Donald Cook “is to reassure NATO allies and Black Sea partners of America’s commitment to strengthen and improve interoperability while working towards mutual goals in the region.”
The ship is the first of four Arleigh-Burke class destroyers that will patrol the Mediterranean region from their new home port in south-western Spain, as part of NATO’s missile defense shield, designed to respond to medium-range ballistic missile threat from Iran.
Russia is deeply suspicious of the missile umbrella, claiming it will diminish its strategic deterrent – something the Pentagon has been denying for years. Before the Ukraine crisis erupted, the Kremlin’s opposition to the missile defense system was the most significant irritant in Russia-NATO relations.