NATO says Russia could be poised to invade Ukraine

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NATO says Russia could be poised to invade Ukraine
VORONEZH, RUSSIA - AUGUST 5: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of State Council August 5, 2014 in Voronezh, Russia. Putin is on a one-day visit to the region of Voronezh, 500 km. south of Moscow. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - AUGUST 1: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the opening of a monument to soldiers of the First World War in Victory Park on August 1, 2014 in Moscow, Russia. The ceremony is one of many events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of World War I in Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - MARCH 08: Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a sledge hockey match between Russia and South Korea at the Winter Paralympics on March 8, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
A Russian soldier patrols the small anti-submarine ship 'Muromets' in the port of Sevastopol on March 8, 2014. Ukraine's premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Thursday dubbed as illegitimate a request by the local parliament in Crimea to become part of Russia. AFP PHOTO/Filippo MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
A Russian Small ant-submarine ship is moored in the port of Sevastopol on March 8, 2014. Ukraine's premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Thursday dubbed as illegitimate a request by the local parliament in Crimea to become part of Russi. AFP PHOTO/Filippo MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
A Russian soldier stands on the Russian Black Sea Fleet Small Antisubmarine Warfare ship (ASW) 'Muromets' in the port of Sevastopol on March 8, 2014. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said its monitors would try again on March 8 to enter the Ukrainian region of Crimea, two days after being prevented from doing so. On March 6 the Vienna-based OSCE said that its team had been prevented from entering Ukraine's strategic Black Sea peninsula, with a Western diplomatic source telling AFP they were turned back by gunmen. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE - MARCH 7: Awaiting of Russian soldiers keeps going in Ukraine military base, Prevalence region of Simferopol, Ukraine on March 5, 2014. (Photo by Elena Samoylenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE - MARCH 7: Awaiting of Russian soldiers keeps going in Ukraine military base, Prevalence region of Simferopol, Ukraine on March 5, 2014. (Photo by Elena Samoylenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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(Reuters) - Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine's eastern border and could use the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission to invade, NATO said on Wednesday.

Stating the conflict in Ukraine was fueled by Russia, NATO said in a statement that the troop build-up had further escalated "a dangerous situation".

"We're not going to guess what's on Russia's mind, but we can see what Russia is doing on the ground – and that is of great concern. Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine's eastern border," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in an emailed statement.

NATO was concerned that Moscow could use "the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission as an excuse to send troops into Eastern Ukraine", she said.

Moscow denies Western accusations that it has armed and supported rebels who are fighting Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. It announced new military exercises to take place all this week, involving bombers and warplanes on Monday in a show of strength near the border with Ukraine.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on Wednesday the threat of a direct intervention by Russia's military in Ukraine has risen over the last couple of days.

NATO said early this year that Russia had amassed some 40,000 troops close to the Ukraine border. By June, the number had dropped to less than 1,000, but then Russia started building the force up again.

A NATO military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that early this month Russia had significantly increased the number of troops near the Russian border.

The roughly 20,000-strong troop presence included tanks, infantry, artillery, air defense systems, as well as logistics troops, special forces, and various aircraft, the officer said.

Previously, Russia has used military exercises as cover for intervention, military analysts say.

The European Union and the United States last week agreed tough new sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, marking a new phase in the biggest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

The conflict worsened dramatically after the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 over rebel-held territory on July 17 by what Western countries say was a Russian-supplied missile.

(Reporting by Barbara Lewis and Tom Koerkemeier in Brussels; additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London; editing by Foo Yun Chee)

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