The European Union has downgraded its estimate of the number of Russian troops from 150,000 to 100,000, after European Union's top diplomat Josep Borrell admitted he had made a mistake at a press conference on April 19.
Borrell surprised journalists by saying Russia currently has 150,000 during a press conference he held after meeting with Ukraine’s Defence Minister Dmytro Kuleba, saying it was “the most ever.”
"We are very concerned about the growing number of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. More than 150,000 Russian troops are concentrated near the borders of Ukraine and in Crimea. The risk of further escalation is obvious," Borrell said on April 19, before his office revised the number down the next day.
The head of Europe’s diplomatic corps refused to answer a request from journalists to name the sources of the data, but said that he was guided by them. At the same time, he praised Kiev for its "restraint" and called on Moscow to ease tensions.
The 150k number caused a stir, as it was significantly more than the widely quoted estimates of some 40,000 troops on Ukrainians eastern border with Russia, plus an extra approximately 4,000 troops in Crimea in addition to some 28,000 Russian troops that have been permanently stationed there at Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol since the fall of the Soviet Union.
However, Borrell already raised eyebrows when he refused to say where the new estimate came from. He would not say if it was a new Ukrainian estimate or whether it was NATO intelligence or some other Western source.
The number caused alarm, as even the highest estimate by Ukraine’s border guard of around 80,000 is not considered enough to launch an invasion of Ukraine, which has a standing arm of between 225,000 and 250,000 men, according to various sources, of which some 40,000 are dug in along the line of contact in the eastern region of Donbas. However, 150,000 men approaches the number believed by experts to be a minimum for launching a successful invasion of the country.
The EU corrected Borrell’s mistake and revised its estimate down to 100,000 on April 20, but made it clear this was counting both the units on the Western border, many of who are in a new army camp close to the city of Voronezh 130 km from the border, as well as the forces stationed in Crimea.
Borrell’s office gave no details of how the number breaks down but it appears that it is simply counting all the Russian and Russian-backed forces in the region.
The previous estimates of 40,000 exclusively referred to the troops in and around the Voronezh camp. In addition, Russia has some 33,000 troops. Adding in the estimated 28,000 Russia-backed separatist rebels in Donbas, who are reportedly supported by Russian Spetznaz units and some regular soldiers, and the total is 100,000. In other words, the new 100,000 EU estimate is the same as the previous estimates but just includes all the forces under Russian control in the region.
Borrell’s office gave no reason for the change in the number.
Tensions remain high
The apparent escalation of the number of troops in the region only heightened tensions further. The Russian side has said the movements are on its own territory and not a threat to Ukraine.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the movements were part of a two-week exercise that was also a response to “NATO aggression,” without expanding.
Shoigu said the “exercises” would end after two weeks and that the troops in the region would be recalled starting from April 27.
The Russian press has reported that Ukraine has brought up fresh troops and heavy artillery to the line of contact over the last two months ahead of the spring campaigning season, which has provoked Russia’s response. There is some evidence to support this claim, but it remains scanty and unconfirmed at this point.
Despite the new heightened state of tensions Borrell said definitively that no new sanctions on Russia had been contemplated by the EU member state foreign ministers during a meeting in Brussels on April 19.
Washington was also being cautious about exaggerating the number of Russian troops in the field. A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the Russian build-up numbered in the “tens of thousands” but was not aware of intelligence that pointed to more than 150,000 Russian troops.
The United States also expressed its "deep concern" over Russia's plans to block foreign naval ships and other vessels in parts of the Black Sea, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
"This represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilise Ukraine," Price said.
The US appears to be trying to play the clash down and cancelled plans to send two frigates into the Black Sea after Moscow warned they would go “at their own risk.” The UK has been less cautious and is planning to send two frigates to the Black Sea in a show of solidarity with Ukraine.
Russia has also temporarily restricted the movement of foreign warships and what it called "other state ships" near Crimea, closing access to the Kerch Strait and so bottling up two of Ukraine’s key commercial ports that will affect its ability to export commodities and goods.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba called on the EU to impose new sanctions on Russia after meeting with EU foreign ministers.
The EU, NATO, US, UK, France and Germany, in particular, have all expressed their concern about the concentration of Russian troops on the Ukrainian borders, but they have also not proposed any concrete actions against Russia nor made any concrete threats should Russia escalate the situation further.
A similar statement on this matter was also made by the foreign ministers of the G7 countries. Last week, NATO twice discussed the issue of strengthening Russia's military presence, but the alliance did not take any decisions and has also failed to issue any concrete course of action to deal with the crisis.
Tensions remain high. Czechia expelled 18 Russian diplomats from the embassy in Prague after accusing the Kremlin of being behind the explosion of an arms dump in 2014 that killed two. Russia responded by expelling 20 Czech diplomats from Moscow. On April 20 the Czech government was discussing expelling all the diplomats in Prague, as Moscow has gone further than the normal tit-for-tat retaliations and has expelled two more diplomats than Prague.
In Moscow John Sullivan, US Ambassador to Russia, refused to leave the country after the Kremlin "advised" him to return home for consultations last week following new Biden administration sanctions.
Russia's foreign ministry has expelled 10 American diplomats and barred current officials, such as Attorney General Merrick Garland, from visiting Russia, after US President Joe Biden expelled the same number of diplomats from Russia’s embassy in Washington as part of the April 15 sanctions package.