WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon said Friday that Russia was moving troops and adding heavier artillery near its border with Ukraine where separatists are battling government forces, the latest escalation of Moscow's involvement in the conflict.
Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said that U.S. intelligence reports showed Russia was planning to give the separatists up to a dozen 200-millimeter rocket launchers, a system more powerful than the rebels have received before.
The arms have been moved near Russia's southwest border with Ukraine and that their movement across the border appeared "imminent," Warren said.
U.S. officials said Russia was stepping up its direct role in the conflict after gains by government forces, who claimed to have retaken the city of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine from Moscow-backed separatists. After the downing of a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine last week, President Barack Obama had called for a cease-fire in the conflict and for Moscow to de-escalate its role.
Instead, "for the last several days, Russian forces using Russian artillery from Russian soil have conducted attacks against Ukrainian military positions," Warren said.
The Russians also have increased their troop presence in the border region to about 12,000, he said.
Russia on Friday called the U.S. accusations of Moscow's involvement in the Ukrainian conflict a "smear campaign."
A U.S. military official, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence reports, said rocket salvos appeared aimed at preventing Ukrainian forces from regaining control of the border region southeast of the city of Donetsk.
He said that U.S. intelligence had seen nearly 100 shell craters in one area, indicating that location had been struck by a heavy barrage.
The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, also sharply criticized Russia's behavior.
Russia could "take this crisis as an opportunity to put things back on a diplomatic track, instead what we have seen from the Kremlin is the pouring of gasoline on the fire," Pyatt said.
Russian President Vladimir "Putin can end this with one phone call," he said.
Pyatt told reporters that the latest Russian military activity -- which he described as a sign that an escalation had "unambiguously occurred" -- had worrying parallels to the country's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March.
"If we roll back the clock to the end of February or March, we can all remember the Russian denials. 'There are no Russian troops in Crimea. These aren't our little green men.' And history tells us that these little green men were Russian special forces," Pyatt said.
He cited communications intercepts by Ukraine suggesting contact between Russian military commanders and separatist leaders and said that Washington has validated the intercepts' authenticity.
"The totality of the picture should be clear to anybody who has their eyes open," Pyatt said.
Some congressional leaders, notably Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., have urged the administration to supply Ukraine with weapons in addition to food and other nonlethal supplies in the country's fight against the separatists.
The administration does not appear to be considering that option.
Putin has denied supplying weapons to the separatists, who are seeking independence and possible annexation by Russia, and said he seeks a diplomatic solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
On Friday in Kiev, the British ambassador to Ukraine echoed U.S. comments about the Russian leader.
"There is a cooperative path to take and a noncooperative, destructive path," Ambassador Simon Smith said as he spoke of sanctions against Moscow. "The logic of (our) policy is if you choose the destructive path and continue down that path, we'll continue down that path too."
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Pyatt also expressed frustration over the actions of the separatists who control the Malyasia Airlines Flight 17 wreckage site.
Dutch investigators have said they continue to be thwarted in their efforts to gain full access to the area, and inspectors from many countries remain grounded in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, or at home worrying about the security of the site.
A small number of investigators, including some from Malaysia, where the flight was headed, and the Netherlands, where it originated, have been able to reach the zone, and wreckage has sat unguarded -- or, in some cases, been carted away -- since the July 17 downing of the plane.
(Cloud reported from Washington and Zeitchik from Kiev.)
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