NATO chief: Russian troops are ‘backbone’ of separatist forces

NATO’s military chief says Russian troops are the “backbone” of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

Russian troops are "training, equipping, giving backbone ... helping (separatist) forces in the field,” Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, said Wednesday after meetings with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and senior leaders.

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Breedlove said Moscow’s forces were also helping train pro-Russian rebels on “the advanced weaponry that is being brought across” the border, according to Reuters.

Earlier this week, Kiev accused the Kremlin of sending fresh supplies, including heavy military equipment, to separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk territories, a charge Russia denies.

"This international border is completely wide open and maintained open by Russian forces, so that forces, supplies, money, fighters can move across at will," Breedlove told The Associated Press.

The NATO commander also expressed unease about Russia’s “militarization” of the Crimean peninsula, including the possible installment of coastal defense cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles "that are able to exert military influence over the Black Sea."

He said NATO was monitoring the annexed territory for the presence of any Russian “nuclear capabilities.”

The U.S. and allies have warned Russia to stop providing aid to the separatist forces and engage in meaningful negotiations with Ukraine. But Russia has refused to stand down despite U.S. and European Union sanctions.

Breedlove’s assessment comes the same day German Chancellor Angela Merkel said additional economic sanctions against Russia were “unavoidable.”

The U.S. and its allies have been reluctant to provide arms to Ukraine’s military forces for fear of escalating tensions in the region, opting to impose sanctions instead.