PENTAGON - Western military officials are sounding new alarms over the increasing amount of heavy and sophisticated weaponry ending up in the hands of Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.
Onlookers scramble, trying to capture the roar of rockets in amateur video posted on the Internet.
NATO officials say the video is part of a growing stream of evidence of Russian escalation and that it shows a Russian Grad rocket launcher aiming at targets inside Ukraine.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren:
“It’s a buildup that involves heavy weapons and sophisticated weaponry… Specifically we’ve seen armor, we’ve seen artillery," said Warren.
He says it’s vastly different from Moscow’s public calls for stability.
“Their actions don’t support those words. Their actions include building troops on the border. Their actions include flowing heavy weapons across the border. Their actions include supporting irregular forces and separatists in the Ukraine," he said.
Senior U.S. officials are voicing ever greater concern about the lethal potential of the Russian weapons, saying a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane shot down July 14 was flying at an altitude of more than 6,000 meters.
The aircraft is just one of three Ukrainian planes and two helicopters shot down since the end of May; at least some were downed with surface-to-air missiles.
“These aren’t plug and play toys," said Boris Zilberman.
Zilberman, with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, speaking via Skype:
“You need somebody that’s been trained and you have a lot of folks in the Donetsk irregular military that are former Russian intelligence, military intelligence," he said.
Analyst Sean O’Connor with IHS Jane’s, a defense analysis group, says in another recent incident, evidence suggests Ukrainian ground forces in eastern Ukraine came under attack from something even more sophisticated.
“That was a Tornado system and that’s basically a brand new developmental multiple launch rocket system and artillery support weapon," said O’Connor.
O’Connor says the Tornado system has enough range that it could even have been fired from inside Russia, and, he says it’s a familiar game plan for Russia in low-intensity conflicts.
“Trot out all the new stuff and see if it works. They did the same thing in Chechnya with KA-50 attack helicopters, SU-34 strike fighters," he said.
Ukraine’s military has asked for more help from Western allies, but so far, the United States and NATO have limited that assistance to non-lethal aid.