Wars and Military Conflicts

Buildup makes Russian battle-ready for Ukraine

Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt
Soldiers guard the Crimean parliament in Simferopol next to a sign that reads: "Crimea Russia."
Getty Images

Russia has roughly doubled the number of its battalions near the Ukrainian border, Western officials said Monday, and could respond to the Kiev government's gains there by launching a cross-border incursion with little or no warning.

Over the past several weeks, Russia has built up 17 battalions — totaling 19,000 to 21,000 troops, according to one Western estimate — into a battle-ready force of infantry, armor, artillery and air defense within a few miles of the border. In addition, it has vastly expanded its firepower, increasing the number of advanced surface-to-air missile units to 14 from eight, and deploying more than 30 artillery batteries, according to the officials.

The Kremlin's intentions in increasing its military abilities remain unclear. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia could be seeking to pressure Ukraine and the United States to agree to a political settlement that would grant the eastern provinces of Ukraine maximum autonomy. But Mr. Putin, Western officials fear, may also be developing the option to intervene more directly if it appears that the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are on the verge of defeat.

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American intelligence experts say that the advance by Ukrainian government forces on Donetsk and other steps that the Ukrainian government is taking to regain territory in the east from the separatists might prompt Mr. Putin to send his forces across the border under the guise of a "peacekeeping operation."

"That's a very real option," a senior Defense Department official said on Monday. "And should Putin decide, he could do that with little or no notice. We just don't know what he's thinking."

Another senior American official added, "The more success Ukrainian forces have, the more pressure there is on Moscow to escalate."

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Adding to the concern, the buildup coincides with a newly announced Russian air force and air defense exercise. When it intervened in Crimea this year, Russia used amilitary exercise to mask its preparations.

The Russian moves suggest that the Kremlin and the West are each responding to the standoff over Ukraine by turning to the tools they know best.

For President Obama and European leaders, the tool is calibrated economic sanctions, targeted to affect banks close to the Kremlin or narrow sub-sectors of the Russian economy, like Russia's long-term ability to develop new Arctic, deep sea and shale oil reserves.

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Butfor Mr. Putin, the tool is the Kremlin's ability to marshal raw military power and, increasingly, its willingness to use it.

Less than a week after the Obama administration and European nations announced new sanctions, the Kremlin has expanded its military ability to provide cover fire for the separatists by firing artillery and rockets across the border into Ukraine. And it holds out the possibility of intervening directly.

Wesley K. Clark, the retired general and former NATO commander, said that Mr. Putin had put the pieces in place for a major military intervention by massing Russia forces near the border, arming separatist groups, infiltrating operatives, conducting exercises to practice the military's ability to coordinate fire and supporting the self-proclaimed mayor of Luhansk, who has called for the Russian military to come to the separatists' aid.

Ukrainian soldiers guard a roadblock along the highway on April 24, 2014 near Slovyansk, Ukraine.
Getty Images

But the risks to Mr. Putin of intervening, General Clark noted, include tougher Western economic sanctions, resistance by the Ukrainian forces and Western military support for the Kiev government.

"He has set the military and political conditions for what he believes could be a successful intervention," General Clark said. "But he still doesn't seem tohave made the political decision to do this, perhaps because he recognizes thatthe risks after an intervention are incalculable."

If Mr. Putin did decide to intervene, one plausible outcome highlighted by General Clark and Phillip A. Karber, a former adviser to Defense Secretary Caspar W.Weinberger, is the possibility of a "peacekeeping" intervention at the request of the Ukrainian separatists whom Moscow has been arming and supporting politically.

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In a closed-door briefing for Congress last month, Mr. Karber noted that Russian military vehicles bearing the Russian emblem for peacekeeping forces had been positioned close to Ukraine.

Amateur video posted on YouTube and Twitter appears to show some of these vehicles operating in Ukraine.

Several American officials confirmed that Russian armored vehicles and trucks with the peacekeeping insignia had been seen on Russian territory near Ukraine. But these officials said that Western intelligence had no independent confirmation that they had crossed into Ukraine.

Strikingly, the White House has been taking the idea of a Russian "peacekeeping" intervention seriously.

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"We've seen a significant rebuild up of Russian forces along the border, potentially positioning Russia for a so-called humanitarian or peacekeeping intervention in Ukraine," Antony J. Blinken, the deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama, said last week when the White House announced new sanctions. "So there's urgency to arresting this."

A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry last month insisted that the Kremlin had no plans to send peacekeeping forces to Ukraine, according to a report by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

The Russian buildup comes as the Ukrainian military has been gaining ground in its struggle with the separatists and amid other signs of Russian military activity. The air exercise announced by Russia's Defense Ministry will involvemore than 100 aircraft, including attack planes, bombers and helicopters. The exercise is scheduled to last through Friday.

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On June 27, Mr. Putin also issued a decree appealing for reservists to report for up to two months of training, a step that was recently reaffirmed by the Defense Ministry.

American and NATO officials have not publicly provided precise troop estimates for the Russian forces near Ukraine. Last week, Pentagon officials put the total at 10,000 to 13,000 troops, but they acknowledged the difficulty of counting Russian troops with precision as units have moved in and out of the border region and employed camouflage to disguise combat equipment.

During a visit to Kosovo last week, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the top NATO commander, said the number of Russian troops along the border was growing and was "well over 12,000." "The number of battalion task groups," General Breedlove said, "Spetsnaz units, air defense units, artillery units are all increasing."

One Western official familiar with the intelligence said Monday that it could be as high as 21,000. The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because intelligence assessments of Russian military strength are classified.

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Even as tensions have grown, Mr. Obama has signaled his interest in a political solution. In a call Friday to Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama "reinforced his preference for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine" and agreed to keep open "the channels of communication," the White House said in a statement.

Mr. Obama also repeated his "deep concerns about Russia's increased support for the separatists in Ukraine," the White House said.