WASHINGTON – Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that Russia’s massive deployment of forces along Ukraine’s border is unlike anything seen in recent memory.
“I think you’d have to come back quite a while into the Cold War days to see something of this magnitude,” Milley said at a Pentagon briefing. He said Russia has more than 100,000 ground, air, naval and cyber and other forces arrayed against Ukraine.
An attack by Russian ground troops, artillery, warplanes and ballistic missiles “would result in a significant amount of casualties,” Milley said.
“It would be horrific,” Milley said. “It would be terrible.”
Ukraine’s military has improved since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, Milley said. It has about 150,000 troops. So an invasion won’t be “cost-free” for Russia, Milley said. He and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said they do not believe Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a final decision about an invasion.
“He clearly now has that capability,” Austin said.
Earlier this week, Austin put 8,500 American troops on heightened alert. They would be part of a 40,000-member NATO quick-reaction force. It includes a smaller joint task force of combat troops, warplanes, ships and special operation forces. NATO has yet to activate the unit. If it does, the first troops from the United States could deploy in as few as five days.
The units included have been notified but not activated. They would be sent to NATO’s eastern flank, not to Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance. NATO is obliged to come to the aid of a member that is attacked.
President Joe Biden said late Friday he would send the troops to eastern Europe "in the near term" but did not provide any specific time frame.
The heightened alert allows the potential movement of combat, aviation, logistics, medical and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance units. None of those U.S. troops have been moved, Milley said.
Putin has been massing troops on Ukraine’s border for months, raising concerns of an imminent incursion or full-scale invasion. He wants assurances that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO and other concessions from the West.
Biden has ordered his national security team to develop a range of options, including economic sanctions, lethal aid for Ukraine’s military and the deployment of U.S. troops to Europe to reassure allies.
–Tom Vanden Brook
Zelenskyy: Warnings of attack causing 'panic'
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the West on Friday to stop suggesting that a Russian invasion is imminent, arguing that talk of war was creating a “panic” that was hurting Ukraine’s economy.
“Do we have tanks on the streets?” Zelenskyy asked 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,” he said.
Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, raising fears that Moscow is prepared to invade its neighbor. Russia insists that it has no plans to attack, but Biden has warned of a possible invasion in February.
Zelenskyy, who spoke with Biden on Thursday, said the threat from Russia appears no greater now than during the buildup of Russian troops last spring.
“I’m the president of Ukraine, and I’m based here and I think I know the details better here,” he said.
In Washington, the State Department responded to Zelenskyy’s remarks by pointing to Russia’s amassing of troops along Ukraine’s border and in Belarus.
“We're seeing Russia undertake these efforts by trying to destabilize Ukraine,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter said. “…It’s a dangerous situation.”
NATO 'prepared for the worst' in Ukraine
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday the alliance stands ready to continue a diplomatic dialogue with Russia but is prepared to respond if Moscow invades Ukraine.
“We are working hard for the best peaceful, political solution, but we also are prepared for the worst,” Stoltenberg said during a forum hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on international affairs.
Both the United States and NATO have submitted written responses to Russia’s demands that the alliance pull back troops and weapons from eastern Europe and permanently deny membership to Ukraine.
Stoltenberg said the allies are awaiting Russia’s response, but he emphasized NATO’s “open door” policy that gives any European country the opportunity to join the alliance. Stoltenberg reiterated that NATO allies are ready to step up their military presence in eastern Europe in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Stoltenberg played down reports of disagreements among the NATO allies about the best way to respond to a Russian attack on Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested the European Union should start its own talks with Russia to find a solution to the escalating crisis. Germany has resisted pressure to deliver arms to Ukraine.
“There are some differences among allies – I don’t try to hide that,” Stoltenberg said. But he said NATO has been successful in the past because “we have been able to be united, and we have been able to change when the world is changing.”
“That’s exactly what we’re doing now,” he said.
Macron, Putin hold 'respectful' conversation
Macron talked to Russian President Vladimir Putin for over an hour Friday, and a French official said they spoke “about the necessity of de-escalation.”
The official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, said that in the call Putin expressed commitment to the yearslong series of talks between Ukraine and Russia, with a new meeting expected in Berlin in two weeks.
But he made no concessions regarding the tens of thousands of troops massing on Ukraine’s borders and insisted Kyiv resolve the legal status of pro-Russia separatists in its east.
The official described the conversation as “serious, respectful. … The tone was serious because the situation is escalating, but it was a committed dialogue.”
– Associated Press
Russia won't allow interests to be 'trampled'
Russia’s top diplomat said Friday that Moscow will not start a war in Ukraine but warned that it wouldn’t allow the West to trample on its security interests amid fears it is planning to invade its neighbor.
Biden warned Ukraine’s leader a day earlier that there is a “distinct possibility” that Russia could take military action against the former Soviet state in February.
“There won’t be a war as far as it depends on the Russian Federation, we don’t want a war,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a live interview with Russian radio stations. “But we won’t let our interests be rudely trampled on and ignored.”
Tensions have soared in recent weeks, and the United States and its NATO allies warily eyed a buildup of more than 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine, worrying that Moscow was preparing to attack. Russia has repeatedly denied having any such plans, but has demanded that NATO promise Ukraine will never be allowed to join and that the alliance roll back deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe.
The U.S. and NATO formally rejected those demands this week, though Washington outlined areas where discussions are possible, offering hope that there could be a way to avoid war.
Russia’s official response to those proposals will come from Putin, but the Kremlin has said there was “little ground for optimism.”
Lavrov echoed that grim note Friday.
“While they say they won’t change their positions, we won’t change ours,” he said. “I don’t see any room for compromise here.”
Pentagon ID's units put on alert
The Pentagon announced Thursday that military units across the country have been placed on high alert for potential deployment to Europe in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military buildup near Ukraine.
They include units at Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Carson, Colorado; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.
The 8,500 American troops would be part of a 40,000-member NATO quick-reaction force. It includes a “very high readiness joint task force of combat troops, warplanes, ships and special operation forces. NATO has yet to activate the unit. If it does, the first troops from the United States could deploy in as few as five days.
The units have been notified but not activated, Kirby said.
They would be sent to NATO’s eastern flank, not to Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance. NATO is obliged to come to the aid of a member that is attacked.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the heightened alert, allowing the potential movement of combat, aviation, logistics, medical and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance units.
Putin has ordered more than 100,000 Russian troops to Ukraine’s border, raising concerns of an imminent incursion or full-scale invasion. He wants assurances that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO and other concessions from the West.
President Joe Biden has ordered his national security team to develop a range of options including economic sanctions, lethal aid for Ukraine’s military and the deployment of U.S. troops to Europe to reassure allies.
Biden speaks with Ukraine's Zelenskyy
Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelenskyy on Thursday and reaffirmed that the U.S. and its allies are ready to "respond decisively" if Russia further invades Ukraine, according to a readout from the White House.
Biden noted the U.S., which has provided Ukraine with over half a billion in development and humanitarian aid, is exploring additional financial support to help the besieged country. He said the U.S. embassy in Kyiv remains open and fully operational, despite the departure of some American embassy personnel and family members over the weekend.
The two leaders reaffirmed the principle that "nothing about Ukraine (would be decided) without Ukraine," according to the statement.
In a tweet, Zelenskyy said he and Biden had a "long phone conversation" in which he thanked the U.S. president for America's ongoing military assistance.
Contributing: Matthew Brown
BETTER TRAINED, BETTER EQUIPPED: What you should know about Russia and Ukraine's militaries
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine: Russian attack would bring 'significant' casualties, Milley says