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Russia has 'well over 1,000 troops' in Ukraine, Nato warns

Russia has "well over 1,000 troops" operating inside Ukraine, Nato warned on Thursday, as Moscow faced an intensifying backlash over growing evidence of its direct military involvement in the former Soviet country's uprising in the east.

Dutch Brigadier General Nico Tak, commander of Nato's crisis operations centre said that the Russian military was transferring air defence systems, artillery, tanks and armoured personnel carriers to separatists in eastern Ukraine. Nato satellite images seen by the FT appeared to corroborate this.

"There's a severe escalation," he said. "The satellite imagery released today presents additional evidence Russian combat soldiers equipped with heavy weapons are operating inside Ukraine."

Gen Tak said Moscow's moves were an attempt to prevent a defeat of the pro-Russian separatists, adding that the estimate of troops inside Ukraine was a conservative one. He said there were about 20,000 Russian troops amassed at the border with Ukraine and that the troops were "far more capable than what we saw in March . . . an offensive army".

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The revelation came as Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said in a televised statement he had cancelled a planned trip to Turkey after "Russian troops entered Ukraine". He called for emergency sessions of the UN Security Council and the EU Council of Ministers to discuss the "deteriorating situation" in the east of the country.

Russian officials have continued to deny any military presence in eastern Ukraine.

"We have clearly stated that there is no involvement of the Russian military, and we have not sent any equipment," Andrei Kelin, Russia's permanent representative to the OSCE, told Russian news agency Itar-Tass earlier on Thursday.

Yevgeny Serebrennikov, deputy head of the Russian senate's defence committee, said: "We have already heard a lot of statements from the Ukrainian government which very quickly turned out to be lies. What we are witnessing now is another canard."

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Gen Tak said the alliance believes the decision to send regular Russian troops with artillery into eastern Ukraine was a direct consequence of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, saying it ensures skilled soldiers are operating the vehicles.

The officer said that in addition to training separatist units and manning artillery batteries, there is increasing intelligence that Russian forces are "taking the fight" against the Ukrainian military directly.

"It's no longer the hand from behind," the officer said. "There is clear evidence of contact between Ukrainian forces and Russian forces."

Ukraine's security and defence council said the country's armed forces had pulled out of Novoazovsk, a strategically important town on the coast of the Azov Sea, to "save their lives" after it fell "under control of the Russian military".

Pro-Russia separatists, allegedly backed by Russian soldiers and equipment that crossed the nearby border, had entered Novoazovsk on Wednesday – opening a dangerous new front in the four-month-old insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Rebels also allegedly supported by Russian forces have also launched a counter-offensive in recent days around their existing strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk, partly reversing recent progress by Ukraine's military against them.

Alexander Zakharchenko, a separatist leader, told Russian TV that there were "about 3,000 to 4,000" Russian citizens fighting alongside the rebels, many of them former soldiers. "Moreover, among us there are also current soldiers who chose to spend their holidays with us . . . rather than on the beach," he said.

Mr Poroshenko said he would meet his security council to formulate a response to the rebel counter-offensive.

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His call for an emergency UN Security Council session was backed by Lithuania, which condemned what it called the "obvious invasion of the territory of Ukraine by the armed forces of the Russian Federation".

The alleged incursion has raised the prospect that EU leaders could discuss deeper sanctions against Russia at a summit in Brussels on Saturday. In the run-up to the meeting, both François Hollande, French president, and Angela Merkel, German chancellor, warned Moscow could face stronger economic penalties.

Pressure to take action over the fighting in Ukraine could be increased by Mr Poroshenko, who will also travel to Brussels on Saturday to meet his European counterparts.

"We have to bring every diplomatic effort to bear, or, as we have already done, use sanctions to give political weight to our demands," Ms Merkel said.

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In an address to ambassadors, Mr Hollande said that sanctions would be "maintained if not increased if the escalation continues".

The loss of Novoazovsk is of particular concern to Ukraine since it is just 40km from Mariupol, the southern coastal city that Ukrainian forces have been using as a logistical centre to support its campaign against rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk.

It is also on the road to Crimea, annexed by Russia in March, raising concerns in Kiev that Russia-backed rebels may be attempting to open a land corridor from Russia to the Black Sea peninsula.

—By Peter Spiegels, Neil Buckley and Jack Farchy, Financial Times

Additional reporting by Hugh Carnegy and Christian Oliver