MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian naval forces in the Black Sea region have been put on heightened alert to discourage Ukraine from trying to disrupt the soccer World Cup, which got underway in Russia on Thursday, sources close to the Russian military said.
Russian officials say they believe Ukraine is building up its military presence in the area as a “provocation” during the tournament.
Reuters has not been able to independently verify that there is a Ukrainian build-up, and there was no confirmation of that from officials in Kiev.
Three sources close to the Russian military said that its forces around the Black Sea Crimea peninsula had been put on a state of high combat readiness. Two of the sources said that decision was linked to the soccer tournament.
“Because of the World Cup and expectations of possible provocations by Ukraine around the Crimean coast, commanders took the decision to increase the fleet’s level of military preparedness,” said one of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media about operational plans.
The Russian defense ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The sources said that the mobilization involved deploying extra vessels to the Azov Sea, an arm of the Black Sea where Russia and Ukraine share coastline, and flying extra sorties by naval aircraft. Navy and coastguard units were involved.
“There is a concern that Ukraine could organize a provocation during the World Cup,” said a source in the navy’s aviation arm who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
“For that reason, we need a concentration of forces in the Azov sea which will discourage thoughts of trespassing in (Russian) territorial waters.”
The third source, who is in the naval coastguard, said the state of heightened readiness would remain in place until July 31, about two weeks after the World Cup concludes.
The Ukrainian navy and the office of Ukrainian National Security Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov did not comment on the Russian naval deployments.
Asked if Ukraine was planning provocations, Turchynov’s office said in a statement to Reuters: “Regardless of the moaning of scared Russian mercenaries and the threats of the Russian president, the Ukrainian military will act in a way appropriate to the threats.”
Russia and Ukraine have been in a tense military standoff since early 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and soon after pro-Moscow separatists fought an armed rebellion against Kiev’s rule in eastern Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the World Cup is an opportunity for Russia and Western countries to put politics to one side and focus on sport.