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

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.”

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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.

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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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© 2022 The New York Times Company

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