- (Photo: Reuters)
Ukraine officials have said that close to 100,000 Russian troops have been stationed around its borders, sparking new tensions as U.S. President Barack Obama urged Russia to move its soldiers away.
"Almost 100,000 soldiers are stationed on the borders of Ukraine and in the direction ... of Kharkiv, Donetsk," said Andriy Parubiy, chairman of Ukraine's national security council, according to AFP.
"Russian troops are not in Crimea only, they are along all Ukrainian borders. They're in the south, they're in the east and in the north."
Kiev has shared fears that Russia might be encouraging separatist sentiments in other parts of Ukraine following the annexation of the Crimean peninsula earlier this month. Though the U.S. originally put the number of Russian troops around the Ukraine border closer to 20,000, Representative Mike Turner has said that reports show there has been a buildup of large numbers of armored vehicles, battle tanks, artillery, helicopters and planes.
Obama said in an interview in Rome with "CBS Evening News" that it is not known what the Russian troops are planning, but urged the world's largest country to move them away.
"It's well-known and well-acknowledged that you've seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises. But these are not what Russia would normally be doing. And it may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine or it may be that they've got additional plans," Obama said.
"And, in either case, what we need right now to resolve and de-escalate the situation would be for Russia to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government as well as the international community."
The U.S. president further reflected that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has shown that the country still grieves the loss of the Soviet Union.
"You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there'd be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward is not to revert back to the kinds of practices that were so prevalent during the Cold War but, in fact, to move forward with further integration with the world economy and to be a responsible international citizen," Obama continued.
"There's a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past and that he wants to, in some fashion, reverse that or make up for that."
The Russian government has reportedly claimed that the forces around Ukraine's border are carrying out military exercises, though the U.S. has said it has not found evidence that that is the case.
"We've seen no specific indications that these -- that exercises -- are taking place," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters.
The Russian Federation annexed Crimea following a referendum, though Ukraine, the U.S. and the European Union have argued that the vote was illegitimate.
A number of non-Orthodox believers, such as Roman Catholics, have since fled the territory, fearing a new wave of oppression and arrests, seeing as the denomination was outlawed during the Soviet Union era.
"No one knows what will happen. Many people are trying to sell their homes and move to other parts of Ukraine," Father Mykhailo Milchakovskyi of Kerch said earlier in March.
"Our church has no legal status in the Russian Federation, so it's uncertain which laws will be applied if Crimea is annexed. We fear our churches will be confiscated and our clergy arrested," the priest stated.