Ukraine tension recalls Georgia war lead-up -Russian spy agency

·4-min read

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia's foreign intelligence agency on Monday compared current tensions over Ukraine with the build-up to a 2008 war in which Russia's forces crushed those of neighbouring Georgia.

In a statement on its website, the SVR said Georgia's then-president Mikheil Saakashvili had "paid a high price" in that conflict.

The Russian rouble fell on the comment, which comes amid concern by Ukraine, the United States and NATO over Russian troop movements near Ukraine. Moscow has dismissed reports that it might be poised to attack Ukraine as inflammatory. [RU/RUB]

Russia comprehensively defeated Georgia in their five-day war and around one-fifth of Georgia's territory remains outside Tbilisi's control, defended by Russian troops.

A U.S. Congressional source familiar with U.S. intelligence reporting said Russia now had somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 troops deployed near its border with Ukraine.

U.S. officials say the Russian military activity along Ukraine's border creates a worrying set of options for Moscow but that it remained unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has a made decision to invade Ukraine. None of the U.S. officials who spoke to Reuters expected an imminent attack against Ukraine, yet they said the Russian movements point toward a building crisis.

Washington hopes to avert conflict by building international consensus about the threat, the U.S. officials said, perhaps to set the stage for potential sanctions should Moscow decide to act.

Earlier, the Kremlin said U.S. media outlets that have suggested Russia is poised to attack Ukraine were being used in a disinformation campaign.

The head of Ukraine's military intelligence told the Military Times outlet this weekend that Russia had more than 92,000 troops massed around Ukraine's borders and was preparing for an attack by the end of January or beginning of February.

Kyrylo Budanov said such an attack would probably involve air strikes, artillery and armoured attacks followed by airborne assaults in the east, amphibious assaults in Odessa and Mariupol, and a smaller incursion through Belarus.

Similar warnings, often sourced to unnamed people familiar with the matter, have appeared in some U.S. media, and the United States, NATO and Ukraine have raised concerns about Russian troop movements near Ukraine in recent weeks.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the idea of a Russian attack.

'AGGRESSIVE DREAMS'

"This is whipping up tension and is another attempt to present Russia as the one threatening the process of settling the situation (in eastern Ukraine)," he told reporters.

"And of course we cannot rule out that this is cover for aggressive dreams that Kyiv may have. I mean aggressive dreams about a possible desire to solve the problem in the southeast by force."

Ukraine's ties with Russia collapsed in 2014 after Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and backed separatists who seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine sometimes known as the Donbass - territory that Kyiv says it wants back.

But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed Peskov's comments.

"We see a surge in Russian disinfo, including false accusations of Ukraine plotting a military attack in the Donbass," Kuleba said in an English-language tweet.

"Let me state it officially: Ukraine does not plan a military offensive in the Donbass."

Peskov accused Ukraine of provocation, and said it was "being supplied with a significant amount of weapons, including modern high-tech weapons".

"And we are observing this with great alarm," he said, "knowing the significant influence of extreme-minded politicians in Ukraine."

Ukraine says it is upgrading its combat capabilities to defend itself against possible Russian aggression.

Moscow has long opposed the idea of Ukraine joining the NATO Western military alliance, and has been increasingly emphatic in opposing NATO's expanding ties with Ukraine.

"Of course, the number of provocations is growing and growing significantly," Peskov said. "These provocations are being carried out with weapons supplied by NATO countries."

The United States and fellow NATO member Turkey have supplied Ukraine respectively with Javelin anti-tank missiles and attack drones, while Britain is supporting the Ukrainian navy.

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Mark Hosenball in Washington; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Mark Trevelyan, Kevin Liffey and David Gregorio)

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