Russia has massed all the forces it needs on Ukraine’s border if it were to decide to carry out an “incursion” into the country and it could achieve its objective in three to five days, NATO’s top military commander said yesterday.
Calling the situation “incredibly concerning,” NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said the defensive alliance had spotted signs of movement by a very small part of the Russian force overnight, but had no indication that it was returning to barracks.
Russia’s seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula has caused the deepest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War, leading the US and Europe to impose sanctions on Moscow.
The two Western powers have said they will strengthen those sanctions if Russia moves beyond Crimea into eastern Ukraine.
NATO military chiefs are concerned that the Russian force on the Ukrainian border, which they estimate stands at 40,000 soldiers, could pose a threat to eastern and southern Ukraine.
“This is a very large and very capable, and very ready force,” Breedlove told Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.
The Russian force has aircraft and helicopter support, as well as field hospitals and electronic warfare capabilities, or as Breedlove put it: “The entire suite that would be required to successfully have an incursion into Ukraine should the decision be made.”
“We think it is ready to go and we think it could accomplish its objectives in between three and five days if directed to make the actions,” he added.
The general said Russia could have several potential objectives, including an incursion into southern Ukraine to establish a land corridor to Crimea, pushing beyond the peninsula to Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa or even threatening to connect to Transdniestria, the mainly Russian-speaking, separatist region of Moldova west of Ukraine.
The Kremlin also has forces to the north and northeast of Ukraine that could head eastward if ordered to do so, Breedlove said.
Any such actions would have far-reaching implications for NATO, a military alliance of 28 nations that has been the core of European defense for more than 60 years.
“We are going to have to look at how our alliance now is prepared for a different paradigm, a different rule set... We will need to rethink our force posture, our force positioning, our force provisioning, readiness, etc,” Breedlove said.
NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels this week suspended all practical cooperation with Moscow in protest at its actions in Crimea and asked military commanders to draw up plans to reinforce NATO members in eastern Europe fearful about a threat from Russia.
Breedlove said they asked him to draw up by April 15 a package including land, air and sea reinforcement.
“We will work on air, land and sea ‘reassurances’ and we will look to position those ‘reassurances’ across the breadth of our exposure: north, center and south,” he said.