Ukraine warns that Russia is ‘almost complete’ building up forces near the border

Russia has now deployed more than 127,000 troops in the region, according to the latest intelligence assessment by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, exclusively shared with CNN on Tuesday.

“The full strength of the RF AF (Armed Forces of the Russian Federation) land group in the Ukrainian direction – (is) over 106,000 personnel. Together with the sea and air component, the total number of personnel is over 127,000 soldiers,” the assessment reads.

The assessment called the situation “difficult” and said Ukraine believed Russia was “trying to divide and weaken the European Union and NATO.”

Russia’s actions are also aimed at “limiting the capabilities of the United States,” the assessment said, “in order to ensure security on the European continent.”

The assessment comes after three rounds of diplomatic talks between Russia and the West aimed at de-escalating the crisis failed to result in a resolution last week.

US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Wednesday it was unclear whether Moscow intended to use the talks as an excuse to claim diplomacy couldn’t work.

Ukraine’s military intelligence said Russia had “permanently” deployed troops from its central and eastern regions to its western border. In late December and January, Russia moved “munitions supplies, field hospitals and security services” to the border, sources said, which Ukraine said “confirms preparation for offensive operations.”

The new assessment also says that Russia has supported more than 35,000 rebels in eastern Ukraine and has about 3,000 of its own military personnel stationed in rebel-held territory. Moscow denies having troops in eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s intelligence activities against Ukraine have also intensified, the assessment said, with additional radio and satellite traffic units deployed near Ukraine’s border and reconnaissance flights along the border having tripled since that time last year.

The Ukrainian military also said Russia could use intermediate-range missiles to “destroy vital objects,” noting that “additional tactical groups of operational-tactical ‘Iskander’ missiles” were deployed to the border.

According to estimates, as of mid-January, there are 36 Iskander launchers near Ukraine.

Iskander missiles can hit targets at a range of 500 to 700 km (about 310 to 430 miles) and could now attack areas such as the capital Kiev, sources said.

New front line

The Ukrainian document warned that a new potential front line has emerged along its northern border with Belarus, a key Kremlin ally.

“The territory of Belarus should be considered a full-fledged theater of operations that Russia can use to expand aggression against Ukraine,” the Ukrainian military intelligence document said.

U.S. State Department officials underscored those concerns Tuesday, saying Russia’s increased troop presence in Belarus has boosted its capabilities along the Ukrainian border and raised concerns of an invasion.

“What it represents is an increased ability of Russia to launch this attack. More opportunities, more routes, more risk,” said a senior US State Department official, adding that the troops were moved to Belarus without sufficient notice.

In Belarus, “Russia is taking advantage of the vulnerability of (Belarusian leader Alexander) Lukashenko and calling in some of these accumulated IOUs,” the official said.

“The timing is remarkable and of course raises concerns that Russia may intend to deploy troops in Belarus under the guise of joint military exercises to potentially attack Ukraine from the north,” the official said.

While the official declined to comment on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions when it comes to moving troops to Belarus, the official described Putin as “an opportunist.”

“We have seen warning signs that the dynamics in Belarus are allowing Russia to continue to exploit Lukashenko’s self-inflicted vulnerability,” the official said.

US officials have said a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen any time in the next month or two.

“We have been closely monitoring Russian military plans to begin activities several weeks before a military invasion, and in our estimation this could happen any time between mid-January and mid-February,” said a second senior State Department official.

The United States is watching closely to see whether Lukashenko still has control over his country – or whether decision-making has largely been handed over to Russia.
Belarus has become an “increasingly destabilizing actor in the region,” the first foreign ministry official said, citing a number of recent actions including creating a refugee crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, arresting activists and detaining more than 900 political prisoners.

“Together against Putin”

Ukraine’s assessment comes as the country’s former President Petro Poroshenko told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday that “the whole world should unite against Putin” and that Ukraine should be allowed to join NATO.

The billionaire led Ukraine from 2014 to 2019, taking power shortly after Russia invaded and subsequently annexed Crimea. He was defeated by incumbent Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the 2019 presidential elections.

“It is absolutely necessary that there is international solidarity and unity” against Putin, Poroshenko said, adding that Western allies should not trust the Russian leader.

The 56-year-old also called for international sanctions against Russia to be tightened. “We need to make Russia weaker, and to make Russia weaker we can do that through the sanctions. We should make Ukraine stronger. And day by day we should get new effective defensive deadly weapons,” he said.

Poroshenko also said “no one knows, including Putin,” whether a Russian invasion will actually happen and much will depend on the imposition of sanctions. He called a possible invasion a “crazy decision” and said the international community should “significantly increase the price Putin should pay” if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border.

When asked if endemic corruption was a reason Ukraine was not admitted to NATO, Poroshenko blamed his successor Zelensky for a “backslide” in corruption reforms.

Poroshenko returned to the capital Kiev on Monday to face treason charges related to funding Russian-backed separatist militants through illegal coal sales in 2014 and 2015.

When asked about the charges, Poroshenko said the allegations were “politically motivated” and prosecutors had “zero evidence”.

According to Reuters, critics say his return to Ukraine serves as an ill-timed distraction amid the political crisis with Russia.

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