Russia invasion forces at 70%, legislators told

Russia invasion forces at 70%, legislators told

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WASHINGTON — Senior Biden administration officials told lawmakers last week that they believed the Russian military had assembled 70% of the forces it would need to mount a full invasion of Ukraine, marking the latest picture of the options that Russian President Vladimir Putin has created for himself in recent weeks.

During six hours of closed meetings with House and Senate lawmakers Thursday, the officials warned that if Putin chose the most aggressive of his options, he could quickly surround or capture Kyiv, the capital, and remove the country’s democratically elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. They also warned that an invasion could prompt a refugee crisis on the European continent.

The unclassified parts of the briefings were described by officials in the room, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Diplomats and intelligence officials from three other countries involved in trying to deter a Russian invasion confirmed the broad outlines of the status of Russian forces, although they disagreed about the importance of certain elements.

The officials who gave the briefings stressed that U.S. intelligence analysts did not assess that Putin had made a final decision to invade. But satellite imagery, communications among Russian forces and images of Russian equipment on the move show that he has assembled everything he would need to undertake what the officials said would constitute the largest military operation on European land since 1945.

They also warned of the possible human costs if Putin went ahead with a full invasion, estimating deaths of 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, 5,000 to 25,000 members of the Ukrainian military and 3,000 to 10,000 members of the Russian military. An invasion, they said, could result in 1 million to 5 million refugees, with many of them pouring into Poland.

U.S. officials said they believe that should Putin decide to invade, he is not likely to move until the second half of February.

The rising concerns come as the Russian military continues to dispatch combat units to the Ukrainian border in its own territory and Belarus. As of Friday, seven people familiar with the assessments said, there were 83 Russian battalion tactical groups, with about 750 troops each, arrayed for a possible assault. That is up from 60 about two weeks ago.

Those troops, numbering more than 62,000, are backed by tens of thousands of additional personnel to provide logistics, air power and medical support. U.S. officials have said the Russian presence along Ukraine’s borders totals more than 100,000; one Western security official put the number at 130,000.

The officials said the number of personnel at the borders was about 70% of what Putin would need to pull off a large-scale invasion to take the entire country.

Whether Putin decides to go through with a maximalist approach or a more scaled-down version is the question with which American, European and Ukrainian officials are grappling.

European officials, examining the same evidence, suggest that Putin could start smaller and test the reaction — with cyberattacks to paralyze Ukraine’s electric grid and communications; an invasion limited to the Russian-speaking territory in eastern Ukraine; or an effort to cut the country in half, roughly along the Dnieper River. U.S. officials have acknowledged the possibility, especially if Putin wants to see if a smaller military action would create more divisions within Europe over whether to impose the most crushing economic sanctions.

Western intelligence officials also say they have picked up chatter suggesting that Russian military leaders are confident they could take Ukraine in a blitzkrieg attack but worry that they may not be able to hold on to the country, especially if an invasion set off a significant insurgency. That has prompted speculation inside the NATO alliance that Putin might invade, seek to change the Ukrainian government and then partly withdraw his forces.

The briefings to Congress on Thursday were led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Avril Haines, director of national intelligence; and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The U.S. officials described to lawmakers five options that Putin could take, depending on the scope of his ambitions and his calculations about whether he would rather try to take the whole country quickly, no matter the human and economic cost to Russia, or attack it in pieces, in hopes of dividing Europe and NATO allies.

The options include a coup that would depose Zelenskyy; a limited incursion into eastern Ukraine similar to what Putin did when he annexed the territory of Crimea in 2014; an incursion into the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine accompanied by a Russian declaration of Donbas as an independent republic; or a Donbas incursion followed by an invasion and annexation of all of the eastern part of the country.

The worst-case assessment is that Putin is preparing to take the entire country — the scenario that would likely produce the most casualties and prompt the harshest sanctions from the United States and Europe.

Milley told lawmakers that Putin is adding the “military capability to do any and all, building himself a set of options.”

After hearing from administration officials, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters that a Russian invasion was a “near certainty.” He added that “if we now live in an era where someone can move into a country and just take it over and claim it as their own, I don’t think it’s going to stop at Ukraine,” echoing the fear that Putin may be trying to redraw the map of the continent to return to the days of the Soviet Union.

UKRAINE INDEPENDENCE

Russia has long bristled over Ukrainian independence. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and parts of its territory for centuries were ruled by Russia. Ukraine also aspires to NATO membership, which Putin opposes.

Increased planning in Russia’s military apparatus began last fall, Biden administration officials told lawmakers. The expansiveness of the effort alarmed intelligence analysts, who assessed that Putin had concluded that he would need 150,000 troops from 110 battalion tactical groups to conquer Ukraine.

Key military enablers, including bridge-building units, have continued to arrive on the border, and more battalion tactical groups are now in transit, with only a few in far-flung locations, such as the Arctic, remaining at their home bases. As a result, U.S. officials initially skeptical last fall that a large-scale invasion would be launched appear to have shifted their thinking as the buildup continues, a congressional aide said.

Ballistic missiles in Belarus, and to the east inside Russian territory, have captured British and Ukrainian attention in recent days. The Iskander-M missiles are mounted on mobile launchers, meaning they can be rolled closer to the border in short order, and they have a range of about 300 miles. That suggests that Putin, if he chose, could begin attacking cities and military emplacements before he moved any troops over the border.

Austin and Milley described to lawmakers an array of additional Russian military assets that have encircled Ukraine. They include 11 amphibious assault ships, in the Black Sea and in the Mediterranean, with the capacity to carry five battalions of Russian marines who could land in Ukraine from the south, the officials said. In addition, Putin has deployed a number of submarines to the Black Sea, the defense officials told lawmakers.

Putin has also deployed Special Operations forces — about 1,500 troops — near and even inside the Ukrainian border, the officials told lawmakers. Those troops, they said, work closely with the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, which has in the past directed cyber and other attacks on foes.

U.S. and European officials have made clear that a physical attack over the borders of Ukraine would lead to significant sanctions on Russia’s banks, trade restrictions on semiconductors and other high-tech items, and the freezing of the accounts of Russian oligarchs and leaders. But there is far less unanimity, as President Joe Biden has acknowledged, about how to respond to a “minor incursion,” or even what a minor incursion might be.

The Pentagon announced Thursday that it would deploy about 3,000 additional U.S. troops to Europe in response to the crisis, including 1,700 to Poland. An initial group of 300 troops from Fort Bragg, N.C., arrived Saturday in Wiesbaden, Germany, to activate a new headquarters to oversee the Pentagon response to Russia’s buildup.

The deployments mark a fraction of the 85,000 U.S. troops already in Europe, either on multiyear assignments or shorter rotational deployments. About 1,000 troops already in Germany are being sent to Romania. The moves are meant to reassure allies and show that an expanded Russian invasion into a NATO ally would trigger a response, and the administration has not ruled out sending other troops already stationed in Europe farther east.

Information for this article was contributed by Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger of The New York Times; and by Karen DeYoung, Dan Lamothe, John Hudson, Shane Harris, Missy Ryan, Ellen Nakashima, Isabelle Khurshudyan and Amy Cheng of The Washington Post.

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