MOSCOW — With a referendum on secession looming in Crimea, Russia massed troops and armored vehicles in at least three regions along Ukraine’s eastern border on Thursday, alarming the interim Ukraine government about a possible invasion and significantly escalating tensions in the crisis between the Kremlin and the West.
The announcement of the troop buildup by Russia’s Defense Ministry was met with an unusually sharp rebuke from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who warned that the Russian government must abandon what she called the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries or face diplomatic and economic retaliation from a united Europe.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” she said in a speech to the German Parliament. “We, also as neighbors of Russia, would not only see it as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union’s relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.”
Merkel’s words reflected the rapid evolution of the Ukraine crisis from a regional conflict to a full-blown East-West confrontation that threatens a deep rupture in relations between Moscow and an increasingly unified EU and United States.
That a leader of Germany, which has traditionally sought to bridge the East-West divide, should speak so forcefully was a further indication of the seriousness and depth of the potential breach.
In Congress on Thursday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry asserted that Russia wasn’t yet ready to undertake a full-scale invasion of all of Ukraine, though he stressed “that could change very quickly and we recognize that.”
Kerry said his hope was “not to create hysteria or excessive concern about that at this point of time.”
“Our hope is to be able to avoid that,” he added. “But there’s no telling that we can.”
Kerry will meet his counterpart from Russia, Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov, on Friday in London, seeking a way to de-escalate the crisis.
As Russia turned up the heat, the United States was trying to tamp it down. A US official said the Obama administration had deferred a request from Ukraine’s interim government for military assistance like arms and ammunition, although the administration was “still considering” it. The Ukrainian request and administration response were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Until Thursday, the Russian military actions had been largely confined to asserting control over the Crimean peninsula, the largely Russian-populated area in southern Ukraine that took steps a week ago to secede and join Russia following the ouster of the pro-Kremlin government in Ukraine last month. A Crimean referendum, which Ukraine, the United States and EU have called illegal, is set to ratify that decision on Sunday.
But the buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia signaled possible further moves by the Kremlin to reassert authority by force over territory, also heavily populated by Russians, forfeited in the Soviet Union breakup two decades ago.
Underscoring the potential gravity of the troop movements, Russia’s senior commander, Valery V. Gerasimov, spoke by telephone with his NATO counterpart, General Knud Bartles of Denmark, the news agency Interfax reported, citing a defense source. The details of the conversation were not disclosed.
Russian news agencies also said the Defense Ministry had ordered six Sukhoi-27 fighter jets and three transport planes to Belarus, a Russian ally, to fend off what Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, called a potential NATO threat. The Belarus deployment came after NATO sent 12 F-16 fighters to Poland last week.
Oleksandr V. Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting president, said on his official website that he believed Russian forces massed near the border were “ready to intervene in Ukraine at any time,” and that he hoped diplomatic efforts by Ukraine and sympathetic nations would “stop the aggression.”
In Moscow, the military acknowledged significant operations involving armored and airborne troops in the Belgorod, Kursk, and Rostov regions abutting eastern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians have protested the new interim government in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and appealed to Moscow for protection.
As Russia’s largest trading partner in Europe, Germany is certain to have significant influence on the debate about how to respond to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Some politicians and observers in other European countries and in the U.S. have suggested that Germany’s close trading and other ties with Russia had made it hesitant to adopt sanctions against Russia.
Merkel’s speech, however, suggested that President Vladimir V. Putin might have miscalculated the anger that the occupation and annexation of Crimea would cause — or that he might be impervious to it.
Putin, who has stayed in Sochi for the Paralympics, has showed no sign of bending to criticism. In a meeting Wednesday with directors of national Paralympic teams, he implicitly reiterated the Kremlin’s argument that the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych was an armed coup instigated by outside forces.
“I would like to assure you that Russia was not the initiator of the circumstances we are now facing,” Putin said.