Russia on Thursday fired back at Western alarm over new deployments of its forces near Ukraine as officials in the U.S. raise concerns about an apparent uptick in Moscow-backed violence there. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov offered a trio of seemingly contradictory dismissals regarding the sudden movement of Russian forces and equipment along its border with Ukraine and in Crimea, as well as a mortar attack last week by Russian-backed troops that killed four Ukrainian soldiers for which Kiev blames Russia. "The Russian Federation moves its armed forces within its territory at its own discretion. This should not bother anyone, it poses no threat to anyone," Peskov told reporters on Thursday morning, according to a translation of his remarks. He also said that Russia feels threatened by what it considers "increased activity of the armed forces of NATO countries" and others that "obliges us to be on the alert." And he said that Russian troops "have never taken part in and are not taking part" in operations in Ukraine, echoing common rhetoric from officials in Moscow that ignores the realities on the ground. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself acknowledged in 2015 the presence of Russian forces there "who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere." Aside from the mortar attack, Ukraine and its Western backers have expressed grave concern about the deployment of 2,000 Russian troops to the Crimea as a part of annual military exercises that have taken place since 2017. Those forces were supposed to depart following the conclusion of the exercise last week but remain there as of Thursday morning, prompting U.S. military leaders to question how Moscow might be planning to use them. Russia in 2014 annexed the strategic peninsula in a move the West considers illegal. Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called their Ukrainian counterparts on Thursday. Milley also spoke to Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov through a channel the two militaries maintain to deconflict potential conflict in Syria and elsewhere, and which by agreement remain private. Blinken expressed "unwavering support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia's ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea," according to a readout of his call that the State Department released. He also relayed "concern about the security situation in eastern Ukraine." U.S. European Command, which is responsible for operations in the region including the small presence of U.S. trainers in western Ukraine, raised its alert level this week to represent a potential imminent crisis amid the apparent new threats from Russia. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby explained to reporters on Wednesday that the new threat level does not necessarily indicate the U.S. expects a crisis but that the local U.S. commanders wanted to draw greater attention to the situation there. "It's a way of improving and increasing a leader's visibility, noting that there's something worth watching. And the word 'watch' is the operative word there," Kirby said. He added that the Biden administration has reached out to Russia to discuss "concerns about this" and to "try to gain a little bit more clarity on what exactly is going on." Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, told reporters late Wednesday the latest Russian activity – along with a series of provocative Russian air intercepts in recent days – represents Moscow's attempt to "reassert its influence on a global stage." American officials under the Trump and Biden administrations have refocused broad international attention on China in recent months, considering it what the Pentagon calls the primary "pacing challenge" that should marshall U.S. resources in the near future. Analysts fear that strategy shift would goad Russia into more aggressive behavior to maintain its relevance on the international scene.