Russia could seize Kyiv in days and cause 50,000 civilian deaths in Ukraine, U.S. assessments find

Russia is close to completing preparations for what appears to be a large-scale invasion of Ukraine that could result in up to 50,000 civilian deaths, decapitate the government in Kyiv within two days, and launch a humanitarian crisis with up to 5 million refugees fleeing the resulting chaos, according to updated U.S. military and intelligence assessments briefed to lawmakers and European partners over the past several days.

The rising concerns come as the Russian military continues to dispatch combat units to the Ukrainian border in both 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 two weeks ago, and comprises about 70 percent of what Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to have in place if he wants to maximize the operation.

Those more than 62,000 troops 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.

Russia has long bristled over Ukrainian independence. Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union and was ruled over for many centuries by Russia. Putin strongly opposes Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO.

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. A congressional aide stated that the U.S. officials who were initially skeptical about a massive invasion last fall have now changed their minds as the buildup continues.

The assessments, the people familiar with them confirmed, also judged that the window for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis appears to be closing. Although a steady flow of European leaders has been in touch with Putin, additional meetings have been planned and the Kremlin repeatedly denies any invasion plans. However, West’s agreement on troop movement and number continues to be pushed in the other direction by the people who know them.

“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. That’s my real worry. Now, I will list them all. 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.

The new assessments surfaced as Putin was reinforcing his own diplomatic support network. Following a Friday meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, they issued a long communique confirming their common grievances regarding the U.S.-led global order. This included NATO expansion and security alliances within the Asia-Pacific. The United States and allies threatened to impose severe sanctions on Russia, threatening its oil and gas exports. Moscow and Beijing reached an agreement for new energy cooperation through a Russian pipeline.

While not underplaying the significance of the Putin-Xi meeting, and the level of alignment between the two, U.S. officials said that the failure to mention Ukraine in the communique was an indication of China’s general uneasiness about military interventions and instability.

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.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that undercutting the Beijing games was one of the reasons the United States and its partners were now spreading what she said was false information.

“As soon as there are talks about a country which is not part of this ‘Western circle’ hosting the Olympic Games … situations surrounding everything become tense immediately — human rights, national interests, regional conflicts and many more,” Zakharova said in a radio interview, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Recent U.S. allegations that Russia was considering staging and videotaping a “false flag” attack purportedly by Ukrainian forces against Russian territory or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine as a pretext for invasion drew fierce denials from Moscow.

On Friday, the Russian Embassy in Washington released a transcript of an exchange between Ambassador Anatoly Antonov and Newsweek in which the diplomat said the United States was making up its own pretexts for war to be used as an “alibi” for a possible Western-backed military operation in Ukraine’s contested Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have been locked in a conflict with Ukrainian government forces for eight years.

“This lie is part of the information war against Russia,” Antonov said of the false flag allegation. “Washington has been provoking the whole world for several months with statements that Ukraine is about to become a victim of ‘Russian aggression.’ “

Also on Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry attacked Western leaders such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for issuing such statements, saying that they “provoke acrid laughter and jokes,” and are “impossible” to take seriously, the Russian news agency Tass reported.

Some Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr 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.

Ukrainian authorities are readying bunkers in the event of a conflict with Russia. Many people in Kyiv have stopped watching the news, hoping that the worst will pass. (Whitney Shefte, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that a Russian invasion, at the scale they now believe is indicated, would have widespread global repercussions even if Russian troops do not move beyond Ukraine. What could become the largest military land offensive in Europe since World War II would probably pose broad challenges to the U.S.-led postwar international order of the last 75 years.

As they have watched the assembling of Russian forces north of Ukraine in Belarus, as well as along the Russian border itself, the people familiar with the information said, U.S. officials believe the Kremlin may be positioning them to launch an assault of Kyiv itself by sending troops south to the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr and moving east toward the capital, while a larger force advances westward from Russian territory.

Such a move would allow the Russians to avoid the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which lies in Ukraine near the Belarus border.

Satellite imagery has indicated that some Russian ground units already in the region are moving closer to the Ukrainian border. The Russian Defense Ministry said Saturday that Su-255M aircraft, the most advanced version of the jets designed to attack ground targets and low-speed airborne targets, have been deployed to Belarus to take part in ongoing “exercises.”

Russia also has 20 to 30 combat ships in the Black Sea, and could launch amphibious assaults along the coast.

Putin is still not believed to have made a final decision to invade or how far to go, the people familiar with the intelligence said. He may still choose to invade the Black Sea Coast, heading towards the Russian-annexed Ukrainian territory Crimea or the Donbas.

Western officials are divided on whether he would attempt a full-scale or partial invasion. According to one Western official, a total invasion that would hold the territory for an indefinite period of time would be difficult for Moscow. There are signs that Ukraine’s people will not tolerate a Russian puppet government. They would instead form strong resistance, both military and popular.

The size of the buildup makes it clear it’s more than a bluff, but some European officials are still not sure, a Western security official said. The official warned that Putin has been exerting so much pressure on Ukraine (including by cutting off gas transit through the country) that it could lead to the government being overthrown.

While many 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 Olympics conclude Feb. 20, in order not to upset China by overshadowing the games and threaten Chinese financial assistance in response to U.S. sanctions.

While Ukraine is not part of NATO, and direct military action is not contemplated as a U.S. and allied response to an invasion, a Russian assault is sure to trigger alarm on NATO’s eastern flank, including in Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

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 wave of 300 troops from Fort Bragg arrived Saturday in Wiesbaden, Germany, to activate a new headquarters to oversee the Pentagon response to Russia’s buildup. It was named Combined Joint Task Force Dragon.

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. These new steps are intended to assure allies that a larger Russian invasion of a NATO ally would result in a response. The administration is not ruling out the possibility of sending additional troops from Europe further east.

In the event of an invasion, the United States may be forced to rapidly consider what to do about American citizens and U.S. troops who are still in Ukraine.

U.S. officials said that about 7,500 American citizens there have registered with the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, and there are probably several thousand others who have not done so. Americans have been requested to leave for weeks. It is not clear if the United States could conduct any evacuation operations while there is a Russian invasion. Ukraine shares land borders with four NATO nations, including Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, unlike Afghanistan which required an aerial evacuation.

The United States also still has about 300 U.S. troops in Ukraine, mostly military advisers from the Florida National Guard. According to Pentagon officials, they can be quickly withdrawn.

Missy Ryan and Ellen Nakashima in Washington, Isabelle Khurshudyan in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Amy Cheng in Seoul contributed to this report.

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