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Russia begins military drills along border with Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatist militants fill sand bags to reinforce a checkpoint on April 24, 2014 in Slovyansk, Ukraine.
Pro-Russian separatist militants fill sand bags to reinforce a checkpoint on April 24, 2014 in Slovyansk, Ukraine.
Photo by Brendan Hoffman

The situation between Ukraine and Russia escalated further on Thursday when Russian officials announced that troops located in the southern and western part of the country would begin military drills near the border it shares with Ukraine. The New York Times reported that it was not known exactly how many troops were beginning drills, but around 40,000 troops total are situated along the border.

Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting president of Ukraine, in turn called on Russia to cease the military activity and withdraw forces, adding that Russia "supports terrorism in our country at the state level." One month from tomorrow, Ukraine will hold a presidential election that was moved up from February 2015 after former president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted and Turchynov named acting prime minister and later president.

The announcement of the battalion tactical group drills near the border came not long after some Ukrainian forces mobilized and engaged with pro-Russian militants in the eastern part of the country, resulting in what the Times said appeared to be "limited action." The number of Russian casualties reportedly varies, but the numbers given range from at least one to as many as five.

"If, in fact, the Kiev regime has started to use the armed forces against people inside the country, then, with no doubt, it is a serious crime against their own nation," Russian President Vladimir Putin said to members of the media at a forum on Thursday.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern that things "could quickly spin out of control with consequences we cannot predict" and called on both sides to avoid military action.

Secretary of State John Kerry also commented on the situation Thursday, accusing Russia of refusing to "take a single concrete step in the right direction." ABC News notes that Kerry warned Putin of additional sanctions on Russia but did not elaborate on when they would be put into action and added that it would be an "expensive mistake" for the country to continue on its current path.

Officials at the Pentagon, meanwhile, criticized the move to begin drills, calling it "exactly the opposite of what we have been calling on the Russians to do." One unnamed military official said it looked like muscle flexing from Moscow but asked, "is it more than that?"

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry says it has given Russia 48 hours to explain the drills.

There was more news out of Ukraine on Thursday as Vice correspondent Simon Ostrovsky was released after being detained by pro-Russian separatists at a checkpoint in Slovyansk on Monday evening. Ostrovsky was traveling with four other journalists in a car when they were stopped.

A Berlin TIME correspondent, Russian photographer, Ukrainian photographer, and British Vice photojournalist were reportedly released after about an hour but Ostrovsky, an American, remained in custody until today. The U.S. State Department called on Russia Wednesday to free him. Ostrovsky had been putting together video dispatches on the situation in Ukraine since early March and had reportedly been held on suspicion of “bad activities.”

Vice issued a statement upon Ostrovsky’s release saying the outlet is "delighted" to confirm the release and thanked people for their support but did not comment any further out of respect to the reporter and his family.