America’s top military officer said Friday that Russian forces could launch an invasion of Ukraine with “very, very little warning” as hundreds of thousands of troops remain poised on the border between the two Eastern European nations.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added during a news conference alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that the current Russian troop build-up “does feel different” from past maneuvers by Moscow.
“This is larger in scale and scope in the massing of forces than anything we have seen in recent memory, and I think you’d have to go back quite a while into the Cold War days to see something of this magnitude,” Milley said. “They do annual exercises and we watch those closely, but this is different.”
Milley also warned Moscow that any potential invasion of Ukraine “will not be cost-free in terms of casualties” as Reuters reported, citing three US officials, that Russia’s military had brought supplies of blood and other medical equipment to the border region.
For his part, Austin concurred with Milley’s assessment of the situation, saying that while the US does not believe Putin has made a final decision about whether to launch an attack or not, “he clearly now has that capability.”
“There are multiple options available to him, including the seizure of cities and significant territories, but also, of course, of acts or provocative political acts like the recognition of breakaway territories,” Austin added. “Indeed, we’re seeing Russian state media spouting off now about alleged activities in eastern Ukraine. This is straight out of the Russian playbook, and they’re not fooling us.”
Despite the ominous signals from the Kremlin and the repeated suggestion by the Biden administration that an invasion is “imminent” or “could be imminent,” Austin insisted Friday that “conflict is not inevitable. There are still time and space for diplomacy.”
Earlier Friday, the Kremlin issued a readout of a call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, in which Putin said the US and NATO had “ignored” Russia’s concerns in their response to Putin’s demand that Ukraine never be permitted to join the Atlantic alliance.
The US delivered its rejection of the Russian demand Wednesday and Putin told Macron his government would “carefully study” it before deciding on further action.
Western authorities estimate that Russia has amassed at least 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine. Russian troops have also been seen moving military equipment into Belarus – further stoking invasion concerns.
One former military officer, however, told Reuters news that blood supplies were being brought up to the front lines of the standoff suggested an attack might be coming.
“It doesn’t guarantee that there’s going to be another attack, but you would not execute another attack unless you have that in hand,” said Ben Hodges, a retired U.S. lieutenant general now with the Center for European Policy Analysis research institute.
While the US and NATO allies have stepped up military aid to Ukraine, the Kiev government has continued to push a message of calm.
On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused the West of creating a “panic” over the possible invasion.
“Do we have tanks on the streets?” he asked reporters during a news conference. “No. When you read media, you get the image that we have troops in the city, people fleeing … That’s not the case.”
“I’m the president of Ukraine and I’m based here and I think I know the details better here,” Zelensky added at one point before insisting there was no guarantee a Russian invasion was coming.
“If you only look at the satellites, you will see the increase of troops. You can’t assess whether this is a threat, an attack or a simple rotation,” he said.