Russia has mustered at least 70% of the military firepower it likely intends to put in place by the middle of the month to give President Vladimir Putin the chance to launch a full-scale invasion of Russia. Ukraine, US officials said.
The officials, who discussed internal assessments of the Russian buildup on the condition that they not be identified, sketched out a series of indicators suggesting that Putin intends an invasion in the coming weeks, although the size and magnitude are unclear. They underlined that a diplomatic solution seems to remain possible.
Among those military indicators: an exercise of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces that usually takes place every fall has been rescheduled from mid-February to March. This coincides with what US officials consider the most likely invasion window. Officials made no suggestion that a potential conflict would involve the use of nuclear weapons, but the Russian exercise – likely involving the launch of unarmed long-range missile tests on Russian territory – could be used as a message to deter the West from intervening in Ukraine.
U.S. officials have said in recent weeks that a Russian invasion could overwhelm Ukraine’s military fairly quickly, though Moscow may struggle to maintain an occupation and deal with a possible insurgency.
The ongoing Russian buildup comes as the Biden administration leaked intelligence in hopes of preemptively countering Russian disinformation and blocking Putin’s plans to create a pretext for an invasion. But he has been criticized for failing to provide evidence to back up many of his claims.
On Saturday, the New York Times and the Washington Post said officials were warning that a full Russian invasion could lead to the rapid capture of Kiev and potentially claim up to 50,000 casualties. A US official confirmed this estimate to The Associated Press. But how US agencies determined those numbers is unclear, and any prediction of how an invasion would play out and what human cost it would inflict is inherently uncertain given the vagaries of war.
President Joe Biden has said he will not send US troops to Ukraine to fight a war. He did, however, command additional forces, including headquarters personnel and combat troops, to Poland and Romania to reassure those NATO allies that Washington would fulfill its conventional commitment to respond to Russian aggression against the territory. of NATO. Ukraine is not a member of NATO but receives US and allied military support and training.
Army officials announced on Saturday that Major General Christopher Donahue, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, had arrived in Poland. About 1,700 more soldiers from the 82nd Airborne are deploying to Poland from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and 300 soldiers are deploying from Bragg in Germany. In addition, 1,000 troops based in Germany are moving to Romania.
With growing nervousness in Eastern Europe over Russia’s rise, much attention is being focused on its placement of thousands of troops in Belarus, which shares a border not only with Ukraine but also with three countries of NATO – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The Biden administration may soon transfer more troops in Europe to allied countries on NATO’s eastern flank, a US official said on Saturday without specifying which ones.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last week that Putin could use any part of the force he has gathered along Ukraine’s borders to seize Ukrainian cities and “territories important” or to carry out “coercive acts or provocative political acts” such as the recognition of separatist territories in the interior. Ukraine.
More recently, other U.S. officials have provided a more detailed breakdown of Russia’s continued buildup, U.S. assessments of the prospects for war, and the U.S. view of Putin’s approach to the crisis.
The officials reiterated what other Biden administration officials have been saying for weeks — that they don’t believe Putin has made the final decision to invade Ukraine. But it seems possible that the Russian leader has set his intentions and is waiting for the last moment to give the green light to an invasion.
Officials described the disposition of Russian forces that have been deployed to Ukraine’s borders in recent months, creating what Western officials see as the threat of a full-scale invasion despite repeated claims by senior officials Russians that they have no intention of attacking without provocation. .
As of Friday, officials said, the Russian military fielded a total of 83 “battalion battle groups” near Ukraine, each of which is roughly equivalent in size to a US battalion of 750 to 1,000 troops. . This is an increase from the 60 battalion tactical groups in position just two weeks ago, they said.
Another 14 battalion battlegroups are en route to the border area from other parts of Russia, the officials said. Two officials said the United States estimates Russia would want a total of 110 to 130 battalion battlegroups to use in a full-scale invasion, but Putin may decide on a more limited incursion. Including support units, Russia could aim to have 150,000 troops in place for a full-scale invasion, an official said, adding that the ongoing buildup could reach that level within the next two weeks.
According to Putin’s ultimate goal, Russian forces could directly attack Kiev moving south from current positions in southern Belarus. It could also send forces across the Russian border into eastern and southern Ukraine if its intention is to fracture and destroy much of Ukraine’s military, officials said.
At the low end of military actions, Putin could order sabotage, cyberattacks and other destabilizing actions inside Ukraine with the aim of overthrowing the current government in Kyiv, officials said.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report.