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Russian troop buildup on border coincides with Kiev's intent to align with EU

| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 8:42 p.m.

Russia has sent thousands of troops to its border with Ukraine in response to the Kiev leadership's announcement that it will sign an economic association pact with the European Union next week.

The NATO chief reporting the renewed Kremlin troop buildup called it “regrettable” and warned that it might be a prelude to an invasion by Russia should the separatist rebellion fail to wrest from Kiev's control the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine, where vital military hardware is produced for Russia.

It was the decision by then-President Viktor Yanukovich to scrap the European Union association agreement in November that ignited rebellion in Ukraine. Pro-Europe demonstrators angered over his move to keep Ukraine in Russia's economic orbit ousted Yanukovich in February, setting off Russia's seizure of the Crimean peninsula and the separatist battles raging in eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in an address to agricultural industry leaders on Wednesday that Ukraine's refusal to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union — the economic alliance he established to rival the EU — threatened the customs-free trade between the two former Soviet republics, especially imperiling the market for farm products.

“This doesn't have anything to do with politics or with the options one or another state selects, because each sovereign state has the right to choose its original pathway,” Putin said in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western accusations that he was trying to pressure Kiev to abandon alliance with the Western European bloc.

But Putin's comments followed by mere hours Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's announcement that he would sign the economic pact on June 27 during a Ukrainian-EU summit in Brussels.

Putin “stressed Russia's right to defend its own economic interests,” the Voice of Russia said of the Kremlin leader's address to an agricultural forum in the southern farm belt center of Stavropol.

Russia maintained more than 40,000 troops along its border with Ukraine over the past three months but had reportedly begun withdrawing them to their bases ahead of Poroshenko's June 7 inauguration. However, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said during a London visit on Thursday that the alliance has observed a fresh buildup of thousands more troops along the border.

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