A series of Russian military moves and potential political steps has heightened concern within the Biden administration that Moscow could launch a major military attack in Ukraine within weeks, U.S. officials said.
Russia currently has 83 battalion tactical groups poised near the country, a substantial increase from the 53 groups it had in December and 60 last month, according to officials familiar with U.S. intelligence assessments.
Should Russia continue adding to its forces and then mount an all-out attack to try to take over the entire country, 25,000 to 50,000 civilians would be killed or wounded, the intelligence assessments project. The extent of the toll would depend on how much fighting there would be in urban areas.
Between 3,000 and 10,000 Russian troops and between 5,000 and 25,000 Ukrainian troops would be killed or wounded, according to the assessments. One million to five million Ukrainians would be displaced, the assessments said.
The growing Russian military buildup comes as diplomatic efforts to defuse the dispute over Ukraine have failed to narrow the sharp disagreement between the two sides. In addition, the Kremlin appears to be laying the political foundation for potential military action, according to U.S. analysts.
On Friday, Russian President
cemented during a meeting in Beijing his growing partnership with Chinese leader
to challenge the U.S.
A proposal by some Russian legislators to recognize the independence of the Donbas region in Ukraine could come up for consideration as early as Feb. 14, according to some Russian media. U.S. officials have been closely monitoring that development and worry that the Kremlin could use such a move as political cover for intervening further into Ukraine.
Russia already provides military support to separatists in the Donbas areas and annexed the Crimea peninsula in 2014.
“They are putting into place the military capabilities they would need if they wanted to conduct a large-scale invasion,” said Rob Lee, a former Marine infantry officer who studies the Russian military. “The forces they are putting into Belarus and their naval exercises appear intended to deter NATO involvement.”
While the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have said they don’t plan to fight in Ukraine, the U.S., Britain and other NATO nations have been sending arms to Kyiv and are conducting training missions there.
With tensions rising, the first of 3,000 U.S. troops that are being deployed to strengthen the eastern flank of NATO allies arrived Saturday in Poland. The U.S. Army’s XVIII Corps is setting up a task-force headquarters in Germany while an Army Stryker unit is being sent to Romania.
Russia has said that it doesn’t plan to invade Ukraine and insists that its units have been sent to Belarus for an exercise. Mr. Putin said in December that Moscow is prepared to take “retaliatory military-technical measures” if the West continues what he called its “aggressive line.”
Russia has moved the majority of its special-forces units close to Ukraine, according to U.S. officials. The Russian Defense Ministry said Saturday that it has moved Su-25 attack planes to Belarus, expanding Moscow’s air power in the region.
The Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian bloggers that monitors Russian military activity, reported in recent days that a Russian National Guard unit is positioned near Ukraine and that National Guard units have been seen leaving Chechnya.
Those National Guard units could be used to occupy Ukrainian territory after it was seized by Russian combat forces and to prevent civilians from observing the final preparations on Russian territory for an attack, analysts said.
In the Black Sea, amphibious ships, which could carry hundreds of Russian troops, are moving closer to Ukraine, the U.S. officials said.
The total number of Russian troops is in excess of 100,000. Each battalion tactical group has about 800 soldiers. The remainder of the force includes logistics, medical, aviation and headquarters units.
U.S. officials said they don’t know if Mr. Putin has made a final decision to attack. The Russian military buildup, which now brackets Ukraine from the north, east and south, gives the Kremlin a range of options.
They include sending more troops into Donbas in southeastern Ukraine and carrying out sequential or simultaneous attacks from the north and south. President Biden said in January that Russia might opt for a “minor incursion.” The worst-case scenario would be an attack on Ukraine’s capital—a possibility Ukraine President
has largely dismissed as an exaggerated fear by anxious Western partners.
Forces in Belarus could make a thrust south on both sides on the Dnieper River, which divides the city of Kyiv, said
a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan who is an adjunct senior fellow at Rand Corp. in Washington. “Being able to approach on both sides would enable Russia to more quickly encircle and seize control of the capital than approaching from the east,” Mr. Courtney said.
To carry out a full-scale invasion and occupation of the entire country, Russia would need still more forces, according to the assessments of U.S. officials. The deployments to date provide it with 70% of what it would need for such a scenario, and those additional forces could be marshaled in a matter of weeks, U.S. officials said.
With its current level of forces, there is an array of military options that Russia’s forces could pursue, including seizing swaths of territory and defending breakaway republics.
The latest intelligence, which the Biden administration has shared with Congress, comes as Mr. Zelensky and the Pentagon have differed over the urgency of the Russian military threat to Ukraine.
Mr. Zelensky and his top security advisers have said the main danger is Moscow’s effort to destabilize the country, not an all-out Russian attack, and they want to avoid frightening the public and disrupting the economy.
“Russia’s main concern might not be NATO expansion but Ukraine becoming such a strong democracy that it could be accepted by the West,” Mr. Courtney said. “And that could add momentum to a move westward by Belarus.”
—Ann M. Simmons contributed to this article.
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