A senior Russian diplomat dismissed new U.S. military and intelligence assessments — which estimated Russia could seize Kyiv in days and leave up to 50,000 civilians killed or wounded — as alarmist and as unlikely as an attack by Washington on London.
“Madness and scaremongering continues. … what if we would say that US could seize London in a week and cause 300K civilian deaths?” Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, tweeted Sunday.
And parliamentary deputy Artem Turov, a member of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, accused the United States of disseminating fake information and of “doing everything possible to fan a new conflict.”
The updated U.S. military and intelligence assessments briefed to lawmakers and European partners over the past several days were U.S. officials’ bleakest assessment yet of the deteriorating security situation in Ukraine. They came as the Biden administration was also warning that Moscow was considering filming a fake attack against Russian territory or Russian-speaking people by Ukrainian forces as a pretext to invade its neighbor — a claim the Kremlin has strenuously denied.
Seven people familiar with the assessments said Russian President Vladimir Putin now has 70 percent of the combat power he needs for an assault that — under the most extreme scenario — could quickly take out the capital, Kyiv, and remove the country’s democratically elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Such an invasion, they said, could trigger a refugee crisis in Europe as up to 5 million people flee.
As of Friday, there were 83 Russian battalion tactical groups, with about 750 troops each, arrayed for a possible assault. That is up from 60 two weeks ago.
The White House has said the United States does not have information that Putin has made a decision to invade. But satellite imagery and other intelligence indicate he has amassed more than 100,000 troops and equipment on the border with Ukraine — one Western security official put the number at 130,000 — potentially positioning for what could become the largest military land offensive in Europe since World War II.
“Our worry would be that you don’t park battle groups … on the border of another country twice and do nothing,” one European official said, referring to an earlier buildup last year. “I think that’s the real fear that I have. [Putin’s] now put them all out there. If he does nothing again … what does that say to the wider international community about the might of Russia?”
The European official and others familiar with the assessments spoke on the condition of anonymity about intelligence matters.
As the United States moved to strengthen NATO defenses in Eastern Europe, the head of the Belarusian Security Council Alexander Volfovich said there would be “very large” military maneuvers with Russian forces in southern Belarus in coming days, in response to tensions between NATO and Russia over Ukraine. Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has been playing a key role in Russia’s saber-rattling against Ukraine.
U.S. officials are concerned that the massive military exercise with Russia and Belarus, beginning Feb. 10, could be used as part of a multi-pronged invasion of Ukraine. The exercise has seen Russian troops and equipment travel more than 6,000 miles to Belarus, and the deployment of advanced missile systems, fighter planes and bombers.
Moscow has denied that it intends to invade Ukraine, but it has made clear it considers the presence of Western troops and weapons in the former Soviet sphere an unacceptable security threat. Putin has accused the United States and its European allies of ignoring his key demands to bar Ukraine from joining NATO, rule out putting offensive strike weapons on Russia’s borders and roll back the NATO’s weaponry and force posture to its 1997 boundaries.
Russia also has attempted to paint Ukraine as the aggressor in the crisis, warning a NATO-backed Kyiv could try to take back Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014. Meanwhile, some Ukrainian officials, including President Zelensky, have taken issue with Washington’s description of Russian deployments and the likelihood of an “imminent” attack, fearing it will cause panic and hurt Ukraine’s economy.
Volfovich accused Ukraine of threatening Belarus in comments reported on BelTA state news agency Sunday. “We did not consider the southern direction as a threat to the country’s security before, but today, based on the assessment of the military-political, strategic situation, we are forced to consider the southern direction as well,” Volfovich said.
Volfovich’s comments came after 2,000 U.S. troops arrived in Poland and Germany Sunday to bolster European security, amid Russia’s massive military build-up on Ukraine’s borders and inside Belarus.
Lukashenko, Russia’s closest ally, echoed Russian claims throughout the crisis that the threat of war comes not from Russia but from Ukraine and NATO. Still, he boasted that Ukraine could not afford to risk a war with Russian and Belarusian forces because “such a war would last a maximum three or four days.” He added that NATO was also afraid of a military confrontation with Russia and Belarus.
“They (NATO) would still be getting ready to deploy there and send some troops there, while we would already standing at the English Channel, and they know it,” Lukashenko said in an interview with Russian state television anchor Vladimir Solovyov. “They understand that it is futile to fight with us, first of all with Russia.”
Although U.S. officials believe an assault could be launched any day, optimal conditions are believed to come between mid-February and the end of March, when Ukraine’s flat, open terrain and the rivers cross-crossing it are frozen and armored vehicles can maneuver easily.
One possibility is that Putin may delay until after the Winter Olympics in Beijing conclude Feb. 20, in order not to upset China by overshadowing the games and threaten Chinese financial assistance in response to U.S. sanctions.
An association of retired military officers led by retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, called on President Vladimir Putin to avoid a war, arguing there were no critical external threats to Russia. Ivashov predicted a war would lead to a crisis in Russia, and potentially an uprising.
“Attempts to make people ‘love’ the Russian Federation and its leadership using ultimatums and threats of force are pointless and extremely dangerous,” Ivashov said in a statement. “The use of military force against Ukraine would, first, call into question the existence of Russia itself as a state; second, it would make Russians and Ukrainians mortal enemies forever,” said the letter.
The association called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to “renounce his criminal policy of provoking a war, in which Russia would be alone against the united forces of the West.”
The latest grim assessment from U.S. officials indicates the window for negotiating a diplomatic solution to the crisis is closing.
President Biden is set to meet this week with new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has been accused of not doing enough to respond to Russian aggression. Germany has been reluctant to export arms to Ukraine, much to the consternation of Kyiv, though Scholz has recently indicated that “all options” — including the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would deepen Berlin’s reliance on Moscow for energy — are on the table for sanctions in the case of a renewed Russian invasion.
Putin, meanwhile, has been reinforcing his own diplomatic support network. After a meeting Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening of the Winter Olympics, the two leaders issued a lengthy communique affirming their mutual grievances over global issues including NATO expansion and security alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to travel to Australia and the Pacific this week for talks, including a gathering of his counterparts from India, Australia and Japan, who are part of an emerging partnership, known as the Quad, united in their misgivings about China.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine could “embarrass Beijing,” because “it suggests that China is willing to tolerate or tacitly support Russia’s efforts to coerce Ukraine,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, told reporters Friday in a briefing ahead of the visit.
Shane Harris in Washington and Amy Cheng in Seoul contributed to this article.