VILNIUS (Reuters) - Fighting in Ukraine is continuing and the truce there is a ceasefire “in name only”, NATO’s top military commander said on Saturday.
“The situation in Ukraine is not good right now,” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove told reporters in Vilnius. “Basically, we have ceasefire in name only.”
“The number of events, and the number of rounds fired and the artillery used across the past few days match some of the pre-ceasefire levels. The ceasefire is still there in name, but what is happening on the ground is quite a different story.”
Breedlove said he hopes a memorandum signed on Saturday for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, including artillery, and all foreign fighters from a 30 km-wide buffer zone will help calm the situation.
Speaking after a meeting of chiefs of defence of NATO countries, Breedlove, who is NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, and commander of U.S. forces in Europe, said Russia has moved some of its forces inside Ukraine to the south to bring pressure on the port city of Mariupol.
Asked whether Russia’s objective is linking up with its forces in Crimea along the Ukrainian coast, he said: “I would not speculate on what their intention is, but they certainly have put in place a military capability to take action along that coast if they chose to do it”.
“What we do know is that, from the height of the Russian movement into Ukraine over a week ago, the numbers have come down significantly and some of those forces have returned back to the Russian side of the border. Which is good, except for that they haven’t returned home and are still available to bring their military force to bear on Ukraine should it be desired,” he said.
“That force is completely capable of doing what it did a little over a week ago, which is cross its border and impose its military will on the Ukrainian military.”
Russia’s control of the border allows rebel factions and Russian-backed forces to be re-supplied, which “will pose huge problems for the Ukrainian army in the future,” he said.
Without directly referring to Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu’s announcement that increasing forces in Crimea is one of Russia’s “top priorities”, Breedlove said NATO is concerned about the Russian “remilitarisation” of the Crimea peninsula.
“Coastal defence cruise missiles which have been in there, the air defence systems which have been in place there can exert great influence on the northern Black Sea and those who operate in the northern Black Sea. And this is a concern for all of us,” he said.
Reporting by Andrius Sytas Via Stockholm newsroom; Editing by Greg Mahlich