Russia has warned the US to keep its warships away from Crimea ‘for their own good’ as it accused Washington and NATO of turning the region into a ‘powder keg’ amid soaring tensions on the Ukraine border.  

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called Washington’s decision to deploy two ships to the Black Sea ‘a provocation’ designed ‘to test our nerves’ as he branded the US ‘an adversary’ of Russia, ramping up a war of words between the two nuclear-armed superpowers. 

The USS Donald Cook and USS Roosevelt, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, are thought to be on their way to the Black Sea from a naval base in Spain and due to arrive tomorrow and Thursday, according to Turkish sources which are responsible for policing the straits leading to the sea. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met Ukraine’s foreign minister in Brussels today for talks, responded that America ‘stands firmly behind’ its eastern European ally while NATO chief Jens Stoltenburg gave the alliance’s ‘unwavering support’ to Kiev.

President Putin has spent the last week building up forces along Ukraine’s border – where there are now thought to be some 83,000 troops – presenting Joe Biden with the first major foreign policy test of his presidency.

While Putin has given no official reason for the build-up, observers believe the move may be in response to a tough line that Biden has taken with Moscow, including referring to Putin as ‘a killer’ while vowing ‘consequences’ for attempts to interfere in US elections.

Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Moscow who was in post when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, said this week that the move appears to be a ‘test’ for Biden to see how the new president will respond. 

Others theorise that Putin is responding to pressure on his leadership from within Russia itself as poll numbers slump and he fends off unprecedented leaks about his personal life as well as political dissent in the form of Alexei Navalny – the now-jailed opposition leader who inspired mass rallies earlier this year. 

Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, said on Tuesday that NATO was planning to station 40,000 troops and 15,000 piece of military equipment in the region – a claim that NATO denies – and Russia is merely responding. 

He also blamed NATO training exercises and combat readiness checks for increasing tensions.

‘Over three weeks, two armies and three airborne units were successfully deployed to the western borders of the Russian Federation in areas for performing combat training exercises,’ he said.

He added that the ‘troops have shown full readiness and ability to carry out tasks to ensure the country’s military security’ and that the exercises would be completed ‘within two weeks’.

In a news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, NATO leader Stoltenberg said it was actually Russia which had built up arms in the region, calling its latest military movements ‘unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning.’ ‘NATO stands with Ukraine,’ he said. 

Stationed alongside the Russian troops are tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers, anti-aircraft missile systems, landing craft and artillery boats.  

The build-up has been matched by an uptick in violence between Ukrainian government forces fighting Russian-backed rebel groups in the country’s east, with another Ukrainian soldier killed today.

Alexey Mamchiy, 40, was killed by shrapnel from an enemy grenade which was dropped on him by a drone, according to Ukrainian media. It brings the total number of Ukrainian troops killed in the region this year to 28.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov, speaking in Moscow today, warned the US to keep its distance from Russian forces in the Black Sea, saying the risk of unspecified ‘incidents’ is very high. 

‘There is absolutely nothing for American ships to be doing near our shores, this is purely a provocative action,’ he said. ‘Provocative in the direct sense of the word: they are testing our strength… They will not succeed.

‘We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast. It will be for their own good.’