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Originally published Friday, March 21, 2014 at 8:44 PM

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U.S. keeps wary eye on Russia’s troop movements near Ukraine

At the Pentagon, senior officers and analysts said they were watching the Russian infantry, airborne, air defense and other reinforcements with growing alarm, unsure of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions.

The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials cast doubt Friday on Russia’s claims that thousands of troops massing on the border of southeastern Ukraine are merely involved in training exercises, deepening fears that Russian aggression will not end in Crimea.

“It’s not clear what that signals,” the national-security adviser, Susan Rice, said in a briefing. She added: “Obviously given their past practice and the gap between what they have said and what they have done, we are watching it with skepticism.”

At the Pentagon, senior officers and analysts said they were watching the Russian infantry, airborne, air defense and other reinforcements with growing alarm, unsure of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions.

Pentagon officials do not believe a new Russian move into Ukraine is imminent. But one of their big worries is that U.S. and NATO officials would have virtually no time to react if it did happen. All told, U.S. officials said, there are more than 20,000 troops near the border.

“The Russian forces are reinforcing and bulking up along the eastern Ukrainian border,” a Pentagon official said. “Our view is they’re preserving all their options, including going in, absolutely. If they choose to do that, we just wouldn’t have much warning.”

Estimates of the Russian troop strength vary, with Ukraine’s defense minister, Ihor Tenyukh, saying there are up to 60,000 troops massing on the border, while others said the figure was between 30,000 and 40,000.

President Obama cited the troop movements Thursday in announcing new sanctions against officials with ties to Putin and in opening the door to broader measures against key industrial sectors. He warned Russia against further incursions after its annexation of Crimea.

Rice’s comments, which set the stage for Obama’s trip to Europe next week, suggested the tensions between the United States and Russia were continuing to intensify. Asked if the Ukraine crisis was prompting a “fundamental reassessment” of America’s relationship with Russia, she answered: “Yes.”

Her comments were all the more striking because they came hours after Putin signaled that he wanted to halt the cycle of tit-for-tat retribution between Russia and the U.S.

The Obama administration is paying less attention to Putin’s words than to the movement of his troops, described as a mix of infantry, motorized and airborne forces. Officials also worry about clashes with Ukrainian soldiers, who are increasingly agitated. Ukrainian officials have said that Russia could use that as a pretext to move.

“This is obviously a very worrying and fragile situation,” Rice said, “but we have been very much admiring of the posture that the Ukrainian people and government have been taking.”

The growing alarm came the same day that two almost simultaneous signatures on opposite sides of Europe deepened the divide between East and West, as Russia formally annexed Crimea and the European Union (EU) pulled Ukraine closer into its orbit.

Putin, in a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, completed the annexation of Crimea three weeks after Russian special-operations troops moved to secure the region.

In Brussels, Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, signed a political-association agreement with the EU. The deal’s rejection in November by Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president at the time, prompted the uprising that led to his overthrow in February.

While the pact allows the two sides to deepen their economic and political collaboration, more detailed elements concerning free trade will be signed only after Ukraine’s presidential election, scheduled for May.

U.S. and European sanctions, meanwhile, rattled Russia’s economy, with Moscow’s stock indexes opening sharply lower, rating agencies threatening to reduce the country’s creditworthiness, and hints of trepidation coming from Russia’s tycoons. Visa and MasterCard stopped serving two Russian banks.

Despite those clouds, Putin painted Friday’s events in victorious colors, and fireworks burst over Moscow and Crimea on his orders, in a spectacle reminiscent of the celebrations held when Soviet troops drove the Nazis from occupied cities in World War II.

In what was seen a possible slight de-escalation in tensions, Russia accepted a plan to send an international fact-finding team of at least 100 members into Ukraine to assess security in the country.

For more than a week, Russia had stonewalled the push by other members of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, to send in monitors. OSCE hopes the mission will prevent an escalation of tensions in Ukraine’s east and south, regions with large Russian-speaking populations.

At the same time, Putin said he saw no immediate need for further Russian retaliation over the U.S. sanctions, adding that Russia will keep funding a program jointly with NATO to service Afghan helicopters and train their crews.

Material from The Associated Press and McClatchy Foreign Staff contributed to this report.

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