KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine said on Saturday it would speed up the construction of a naval base at the port of Berdyansk to prevent what Kyiv calls a gradual attempt by Moscow to take control of the Sea of ​​Azov that flows past Russian-annexed Crimea.

Ukraine’s newly-appointed defence minister announced the plans after a trip to Berdyansk that followed Western warnings this week about Russian troop movements near Ukraine’s borders and a possible attack.

Russia has dismissed as inflammatory suggestions Moscow might be weighing an attack and accused Washington of aggressive moves in the Black Sea where Ukraine and the United States held military drills on Saturday.

Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said it was vital for Ukraine to strengthen its naval forces. “The corresponding instructions will be given to accelerate the construction of the naval base,” Reznikov said in a statement.

Ukraine announced plans to build a base in Berdyansk in 2018 after losing its military bases on the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014 before backing separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has since taken de facto control of the Kerch Strait, which provides a passage from the Black Sea to the Sea of ​​Azov, where two large Ukrainian ports are located – Berdyansk and Mariupol.

In his statement, Reznikov said Russia’s actions in the Azov and Black Seas had sharpened security risks and created systemic threats to shipping.

“Following the occupation of Crimea and parts of (eastern Ukraine), Russia is trying to de facto occupy the Sea of Azov as well,” Reznikov said.

Russia has in the past denied the allegation it wants to take control of the Sea of Azov. There was no immediate reaction from Russia to the Ukrainian defence minister’s comments

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; editing by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Cawthorne)