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Pro-Russia militants this week destroyed a military radar in eastern Ukraine in what U.S. officials say is an ominous sign that Moscow continues preparations for military action, while covertly destabilizing the region internally.

Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency reported Tuesday that some 20 trained militants armed with automatic rifles attacked a radar installation in the Luhansk region.

The attackers overpowered Ukrainian guards, seized weapons and set fire to the radar.

Along its border with Ukraine, Russia has deployed 40,000 to 80,000 troops that appear to be staging for a military intervention, according to the Pentagon.

A Pentagon official said Moscow’s destabilization strategy appears to be to threaten Kiev by massing troops on the border while Russian military intelligence and special operations commandos organize militants to conduct operations inside Ukraine.

Eastern Ukraine has been wracked by violence in recent weeks, as pro-Russian elements have attacked Ukrainian government buildings in at least 20 towns and cities.

Militants also shot down three Ukrainian military helicopters in the past week.

NATO commander Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove said Russian special operations in Ukraine are succeeding and warned that Moscow could achieve a takeover of the country without direct military force.

Speaking in Toronto, Gen. Breedlove said that until a week ago military analysts believed Moscow was planning to use its military to create a land bridge from Russia to Crimea that would allow the resupply of forces in the peninsula.

“Today, I would tell you I don’t think that’s the most likely course of action I think now that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin may be able to accomplish his objectives in eastern Ukraine and never go across the border with his forces,” he said.

“Now I think probably the most likely course of action is that he will continue doing what he’s doing — discrediting the government, creating unrest, trying to set the stage for a separatist movement.”

The subversion will make it easier for Moscow to gain military and economic control over eastern Ukraine, said Gen. Breedlove, whose remarks were reported by Reuters.

Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.