Russia has enough troops near Ukraine for full invasion, Pentagon says

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin listens as General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks about the possibility of an attack on Ukraine while answering questions from reporters about Russia and the crisis in the Ukraine during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington, US, Jan 28, 2022. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has deployed the troops and military hardware needed to invade all of Ukraine, the Pentagon’s top leaders said Friday, as senior Defense Department officials warned that the tense standoff was leading the United States, its NATO allies and Russia into uncharted territory.

Russia has assembled more than 100,000 troops at Ukraine’s borders, the officials said, publicly confirming for the first time what intelligence analysts have described for weeks. Those troops, Pentagon officials said, have the ability to move throughout Ukraine, far beyond an incursion into only the border regions.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described an array of Russian infantry troops, artillery and rockets assembled at the Ukrainian border, which he said “far and away exceeds what we would typically see them do for exercises.”

Gen Mark A Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was more blunt: “I think you’d have to go back quite a while to the Cold War days to see something of this magnitude.”

Their comments came as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine called for calm, saying that talk of an invasion could cause panic and destabilise his country’s economy. But the Pentagon leaders, speaking at a news conference that was dominated by the unfolding crisis, presented a grim picture, and Defense Department officials and Russia experts have privately warned that a Russian invasion has the potential to start a conflict between Moscow and the West that could quickly escalate.

Even if NATO is not drawn into a wider conflict, invading Ukraine could bring carnage, Milley warned. “Given the type of forces that are arrayed,” he said, referring to the Russian troops and hardware at the border, “if that was unleashed on Ukraine, it would be significant, very significant, and it would result in a significant amount of casualties.”

He added: “You can imagine what that might look like in dense urban areas, along roads and so on and so forth. It would be horrific. It would be terrible. And it’s not necessary. And we think a diplomatic outcome is the way to go here.”

US officials estimate that 35,000 Americans are in Ukraine, including 7,000 people who have registered with the US Embassy in Kyiv, the capital. While the State Department has advised Americans to leave the country and has ordered family members of embassy personnel to depart, Pentagon officials know well from their experience in Afghanistan over the summer that US citizens often do not heed advice to leave.

Austin did not rule out the possibility that US troops might be sent to Ukraine to evacuate Americans if Russia invades and there is combat in the streets of Kyiv. “Whatever task the United States military is called upon to accomplish, we will be prepared to do it,” he said when asked if US troops would enter Ukraine to evacuate Americans.

But that is exactly the type of situation that officials fear could lead to a potential miscalculation and escalation.

“When there’s war, everything changes,” Michael A McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, said in an interview. “Accidents can happen, and planes can get shot down. Americans in Ukraine could get killed. All those kinds of scenarios could happen, and then we’re in a different world.”

Austin has put 8,500 US troops on high alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe, where most of them would join a NATO rapid response team of 30,000 to 40,000 troops. And while President Joe Biden has made clear that he has no intention of deploying US troops to Ukraine to help fend off an invasion, he indicated this week that he might separately send additional troops to Eastern European allies that are worried about Russian advances.

The troops on high alert include elements from the 82nd Airborne out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina; the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and the 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Carson, Colorado, as well as from bases in Arizona, Texas, Washington state, Louisiana, Georgia and Ohio.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so the United States has no treaty obligation to defend it. But the alliance’s so-called eastern flank — former Soviet satellites and the Baltic countries — are concerned that they could be next on Putin’s list. The purpose of the US troops, if deployed, would be to reassure those NATO allies that while the United States might decline to enter a war with Russia over Ukraine, it will not hesitate to do so if a NATO member is attacked.

There are also signs that Russia and its proxies are stirring up discord and confusion far from Ukraine to distract the United States and its European partners.

Russian surveillance aircraft this week flew near Al-Tanf, a military outpost in Syria near the Jordanian border where some 200 US troops are training allied Syrian militia members. Two Russian warships are in the Red Sea waiting to steam into the eastern Mediterranean, where a US aircraft carrier is conducting a naval exercise.

In West Africa’s Sahel region, supporters of a military coup in Burkina Faso took to the streets this week waving Russian flags, showing their desire to pivot away from France, the former colonial power, and toward Moscow.

French officials suggested that the Russian Embassy may have paid the supporters to wave flags, as the Russians have done in Mali, a country north of Burkina Faso that recently signed a deal to bring in several hundred Russian mercenaries to help combat a growing Islamic insurgency there. France and several other European countries operating in Mali have strenuously opposed the country’s plan to recruit mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked firm.

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