Satellite images showing Russian forces engaged in military operations inside Ukraine with tanks and sophisticated weaponry have been released by Nato.
A convoy of Russian armed vehicles and artillery is seen rolling through Krasnodon in Luhansk oblast on 21 August and setting up firing positions in the separatist-controlled region.
Nato said the configuration was “exactly how trained military professionals would arrange their assets on the ground”, indicating that the soldiers were not amateur rebels but Russian soldiers.
Similar Russian artillery systems have recently shelled Ukrainian positions outside the city of Luhansk in as rebels pushed back against a siege by Government forces.
Nato claimed the latest satellite pictures clearly showed Russian forces were “preparing for action” in the Ukrainian countryside.
Dutch Brigadier General Nico Tak, director of the Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Centre (CCOMC) in Nato’s Allied Command Operations said the images confirmed what had been seen for weeks from other sources.
“Over the past two weeks we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia's military interference in Ukraine,” he said.
“The satellite images provide additional evidence that Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, are operating inside Ukraine's sovereign territory.”
Brigadier General Tak said it was the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the overall scope of Russia troop and weapon deployment in rebel-controlled areas.
“We have also detected large quantities of advanced weapons, including air defence systems, artillery, tanks, and armoured personnel carriers being transferred to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine,” said he said.
“The presence of these weapons along with substantial numbers of Russian combat troops inside Ukraine make the situation increasingly grave.”
Images of activity along the border were also released, showing Russian long-range guns pointing towards Ukrainian territory.
Nato believes Putin’s forces are carrying out operations in direct support to forces operating inside Ukraine as part of a “highly coordinated and destabilising strategy”.
Brigadier General Tak said: “Russia is reinforcing and resupplying separatist forces in a blatant attempt to change the momentum of the fighting, which is currently favouring the Ukrainian military.
“Its ultimate aim is to alleviate pressure on separatist fighters in order to prolong this conflict indefinitely, which would result in further tragedy for the people of Eastern Ukraine.”
More than 2,200 people, including at least 23 children, have been killed since the start of the Ukrainian conflict earlier this year, when pro-Russian separatists overthrew authorities in many areas after the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Vladimir Putin and his officials have long rebuffed accusations of Russian involvement in the violence but the latest images will be more difficult to deny.
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, acknowledged reports about the satellite images on Friday but claimed previous imagery was from video games and the Nato photos "happen to be much the same quality".
“It’s not the first time we've heard wild guesses, though facts have never been presented so far,” he said according to Russia Today.
“We’ll react by remaining persistent in our policies to stay bloodshed and give a start to the nationwide dialogue and negotiations about the future of Ukraine."
Speaking after the US had lambasted Russia in an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Barack Obama did not propose military intervention but said the “ongoing Russian incursion into Ukraine will only bring more costs and consequences for Russia”.
He said Chancellor Angela Merkel had agreed that Russia was “responsible for the violence in eastern Ukraine”.
The President added: “The violence is encouraged by Russia. The separatists are trained by Russia. They are armed by Russia. They are funded by Russia.
“Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
“And the new images of Russian forces inside Ukraine make that plain for the world to see.”
While he did not use the word “invasion”, others were more blunt, with Lithuania’s UN Ambassador, Raimonda Murmokaite, tweeting ahead of the Security Council meeting: “An invasion is an invasion is an invasion.”
The Russian Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin did not deny that his country’s soldiers were in Ukraine but said the Kiev Government was “waging war against its own people”.
“There are Russian volunteers in eastern parts of Ukraine. No one is hiding that,” he said.
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