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 on Wednesday.
Calling the situation “incredibly concerning”, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said NATO 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 Crimea region has caused the deepest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War, leading the United States and Europe to impose sanctions on Moscow. They have said they will strengthen those sanctions if Russia moves beyond Crimea into east 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 said in an interview with Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.
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The Russian force has aircraft and helicopter support as well as field hospitals and electronic warfare capabilities.
“The entire suite that would be required to successfully have an incursion into Ukraine should the decision be made,” Breedlove said. “We think it is ready to go and we think it could accomplish its objectives in between 3 and 5 days if directed to make the actions.”
He said Russia could have several potential objectives, including an incursion into southern Ukraine to establish a land corridor to Crimea, pushing beyond Crimea to Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa or even threatening to connect to Transdniestria, the mainly Russian-speaking, separatist region of Moldova.
Russia accuses NATO of reverting to Cold War language
Russia accused NATO on Wednesday of reverting to the language of the Cold War by suspending cooperation with Moscow, and said neither side would gain from the move.
It said the decision by NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday to suspend all practical cooperation with Russia, in protest at its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, created a sense of “deja vu”.
“The language of the statements rather resembles the verbal jousting of the ‘Cold War’ era,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement. “It is not hard to imagine who will gain from the suspension of cooperation between Russia and NATO on countering modern threats and challenges to international and European security, in particular in areas such as the fight against terrorism, piracy and natural and man-made disasters.”
“In any case, it will certainly not be Russia or NATO member states.”