UPDATED: U.S. says Russia inching troops closer to Ukraine, stocking up on blood supplies

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BRUSSELS, Feb 17 (Reuters) – The United States has seen Russia stocking up on blood supplies, inching troops closer to Ukraine’s borders and flying in more combat aircraft, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday, dismissing Moscow claims of withdrawal.

“I was a soldier myself not that long ago. I know firsthand that you don’t do these sorts of things for no reason,” said Austin, a retired Army general. “And you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”

Moscow denies it is planning to invade its neighbour and said this week it was pulling back some troops. Russia’s defence ministry released video it said showed more departing units.

Maxar Technologies, a private U.S. company that has been tracking the build-up, said satellite images showed that while Russia has pulled back some military equipment from near Ukraine, other hardware has arrived.

“We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft. We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea,” Austin said. “We even see them stocking up their blood supplies.”

Reuters was first to report that Russia had moved blood supplies toward Ukraine’s borders, and Austin’s remarks appeared to be the first public confirmation of that intelligence.

World powers are engaged in one of the deepest crises in East-West relations for decades, jostling over post-Cold War influence and energy supplies as Moscow wants to stop Ukraine from ever joining the NATO military alliance.

Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces traded accusations on Thursday of firing shells across the ceasefire line in eastern Ukraine, and Kyiv said the incidents looked like a “provocation” at a time when Russia has troops massed on the frontier.

Austin, speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels, said the reports of shelling were concerning.

“We are still gathering details but we have said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict,” he told a news conference.

He said the alliance would explore ways to increase its military readiness since Moscow’s deployment “brings Russian troops right up to NATO’s doorstep”.

He also renewed U.S. warnings about potential false-flag operations by Russia to justify an attack, “a play we’ve seen them run in the past”.

“So, we and our allies will stay vigilant,” Austin said.

Austin is set to travel next to Poland, where he will meet U.S. troops. He noted Bulgaria agreed on Thursday to host a U.S. Army Stryker company for joint training.

Images show Russian military activity near Ukraine still high

Satellite images show Russia has moved some of its military equipment that was deployed near Ukraine, but other hardware has arrived and Moscow still has a lot of forces and equipment near its ex-Soviet neighbour, a private U.S. company said on Thursday.

Russia on Tuesday announced a partial pullback of its forces near Ukraine that have fuelled fears of a looming invasion, but Western countries warned on Wednesday that there was a growing – not reduced – Russian military presence

Moscow denies planning to invade.

The images released by U.S.-based Maxar Technologies, which has been tracking the build-up of Russian forces for weeks, could not be independently verified by Reuters. The images showed locations in Belarus, western Russia and annexed Crimea on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

In Crimea, from where Russia has shown videos of it pulling out tanks and military equipment, Maxar pointed to armoured vehicles positioned at the Yevpatoria railyard that could be preparing to depart.

Troops and equipment remained deployed, however, at other sites on the peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, including the Opuk training area, and sites at Lake Donuzlav and Novoozernoye, it said.

In Belarus, where Russia is holding huge exercises, Maxar pointed to a new military pontoon bridge over the Pripyat river less than six kilometres from the border with Ukraine, and a large new field hospital at one training site.

At an airfield in Belarus, a new unit of nearly 20 attack helicopters had been deployed, but significant troop and ground forces units recently deployed there had departed and were unaccounted for, Maxar said.

Troops and armoured equipment were still deployed at other sites and were training. Most of the equipment and troop housing area that had been present near Rechitsa in southeast Belarus has departed and was unaccounted for, it said, adding that a military convoy was seen heading west.

Photo – A handout satellite image made available by Maxar Technologies shows a closer view of Sukhoi Su-34 fighters deployment in Primorsko-Akhtarsk airbase, in Krasnodar Krai, Russia. EPA-EFE/MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES HANDOUT

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