KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) — “Russia has launched large-scale incursions into Ukraine,” a British government source said Friday, moving between 4,000 to 5,000 troops into its western neighbor’s territory, with some 20,000 more perched on the border.
The statement comes despite Moscow’s fervent claims its forces aren’t in Ukraine, and significantly more than a U.S. official’s earlier claim of 1,000 Russian troops.
The British source said the Russian troops are aligned in “formed units” and taking part in fighting around Luhansk and Donetsk.
“The primary role of the current Russian deployments inside Ukraine is probably to assist, support and take the pressure off the separatist forces in order to maintain pressure on Kiev to decentralize,” the source said, summarizing a British analysis of troop movements. “However, we are not ruling out more ambitious plans, including a land corridor from the Russian border to Crimea.”
The scale of the reported Russian intervention raises the stakes yet again in a conflict that’s been raging for months.
It began with President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster early this year, which was followed by Crimea leaving Ukraine to become part of Russia despite the fact they don’t share a common border. Since then, pro-Moscow separatists have been fighting against the Kiev-based government’s forces.
Russia has sympathized with the rebels and the plight of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, while repeatedly denying direct involvement in the warfare.
One day after NATO presented satellite images from late August showing what it said were Russian artillery in military operations in Ukraine, the coalition’s leader blasted what he called Moscow’s “hollow denials” and “the serious escalation of Russian aggression.”
Speaking after a meeting of NATO ambassadors in Brussels, Belgium, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmusse said Russia’s action was a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and “defies all diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov swiftly shot down the NATO claims, then fired back by accusing Western countries of bias and suggesting the images are fabricated.
Referring to past satellite images presented by NATO apparently showing a buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, he claimed that “it turned out those were images from computer games — the latest accusations are pretty similar.”
Lavrov said no evidence of a purported incursion was presented to Russia, adding, “I do believe that hiding the evidence is an outstanding characteristic of the U.S. and many EU countries” with regards to Ukraine.
Putin: Ukraine speaks ‘language of ultimatums’
Addressing participants at a youth camp Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Ukrainian authorities need to sit at the negotiating table, “but they speak the language of ultimatums instead.”
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement accused the West of failing to condemn the deaths of civilians in military action by Ukrainian forces, and called for a ceasefire and negotiated settlement of the crisis.
“When Kiev said that negotiations would begin only after the surrender of those whom they call ‘separatists,’ the militia are left with no choice but to defend their homes, their families,” it said.
It also called for the immediate release of Russian Embassy security guards it said were arrested Thursday in Kiev under the pretext that they had grenades.
Earlier Friday, Putin’s office said pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine should open a humanitarian corridor for surrounded Ukrainian troops to retreat from the battlefield.
Fighting raging on multiple fronts
Ukrainian troops have been fighting on two fronts: southeast of rebel-held Donetsk, and along the nation’s southern coast in the town of Novoazovsk, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the Russian border.
Mykhailo Lysenko, the deputy commander of the Ukrainian Donbas battalion, on Thursday described the fighting in the south as “a full-scale invasion.”
Analysts suggest that Russia may have sent its forces into Novoazovsk to secure a land route from the border to the Crimean peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in March, and in order to throw Ukrainian forces making gains against besieged rebel forces in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk off balance.
In a statement issued by the Kremlin, Putin said the rebels had halted a Ukrainian military operation in eastern Ukraine that he said had endangered the civilian population and caused many casualties.
As a result, he said, they should allow the Ukrainian soldiers to leave the battlefield, in order to reunite with their families, get help for the injured and avoid more casualties.
The Prime Minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, said on Russia’s state-run Russia 24 TV channel that the rebels would do so if the surrounded Ukrainian troops agreed to hand over their weapons.
West to consider further sanctions
U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in a phone call Thursday that the United States and the European Union would have to consider additional sanctions on Russia.
They also reiterated their determination to continue to work for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, a White House readout of the call said.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Obama said, “The violence is encouraged by Russia. The separatists are trained by Russia; they are armed by Russia; they are funded by Russia.”
Calling sanctions against Russia already in place “effective,” he said it would face additional consequences for its ongoing incursion. Russia, he added, is “already more isolated than at any time since the end of the Cold War.”
The economic sanctions already imposed against Russian individuals and businesses have had an impact but have also affected some European businesses. Russia has imposed its own sanctions in retaliation for the Western measures.
Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to European nations, complicating efforts to exert pressure on Moscow.
EU foreign ministers are meeting in Italy on Friday and Saturday to discuss the crisis.
U.N. reports abuses, civilian deaths
Heavy fighting in densely populated areas of eastern Ukraine has led to the death and injury of many civilians trapped in urban areas, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said.
A new report Friday, covering the month to August 17, said an average of 36 people were killed each day.
“There is an urgent need to end the fighting and violence in the eastern regions, before more civilians are harmed or forced to flee, or face intolerable hardships trapped inside the conflict zones,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
The report also documents “a wide array of serious human rights abuses” committed primarily by the rebel fighters.
Violations have also been committed by members of the Ukrainian military as they try to recapture rebel-held territory, it said.
At least 2,593 people were killed in Ukraine between mid-April and August 27, it said.
Journalist Victoria Butenko reported from Kiev, and Max Foster and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN’s Greg Botelho, Alla Eshchenko, Elaine Ly and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.