Russia has massed about 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine's border and could use the pretext of a humanitarian mission to invade, Nato said yesterday, its starkest warning yet that Moscow could soon mount a ground assault against its neighbour.
With fighting escalating and rebels losing ground, Russia has announced military exercises this week in the border region.
"We're not going to guess what's on Russia's mind, but we can see what Russia is doing on the ground - and that is of great concern. Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine's eastern border," Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.
Moscow could use "the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission as an excuse to send troops into Eastern Ukraine", she said.
Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in the Black Sea in March, and Western countries said it funded and armed pro-Russian rebels that rose up in the east of Ukraine in April.
Russia yesterday denied that it had increased the number of its troops on the border. Defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenikov said "movements of such forces of thousands of troops and equipment is not possible in such a short time".
Meanwhile, Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen will visit Kiev today, Ukraine's foreign ministry said. The visit is at the invitation of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.