Russia is stationing more tanks, mobile rocket artillery systems and advanced short-range ballistic missile batteries near the border with Ukraine, according to new satellite images released on Thursday.
The release of the images, taken by satellite company Maxar Technologies on Dec. 13, came hours after Moscow and Washington traded warnings over what might come next in the tense standoff. Yet representatives confirm the two sides are working toward a meeting next month in an attempt to reduce tensions.
Over 100,000 Russian troops have massed in an arc along Ukraine’s borders, from Crimea in the south to its northeast frontier, complete with enough equipment and logistical backbone to make a quick push into Ukraine if so ordered.
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said if Russian forces move into Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies “are prepared to impose severe costs that will damage Russia’s economy and bring about exactly what [Russia] says it does not want — more NATO capabilities, not less, closer to Russia, not further away.”
The remarks were the clearest to date that the Biden administration is considering moving troops and equipment around Europe to defend its easternmost NATO allies.
In response to any Russian incursion, the U.S. would “increase support for Ukraine’s ability to defend its own territory and also to reassure our NATO partners and allies by changes in our force posture in frontline states,” the U.S. official said. “All of that planning is well underway on our side and we’re ready to act if and when it’s needed.”
During his annual year-end press conference Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to build on the rhetoric he and his advisers used earlier in the week in a series of speeches at the Ministry of Defense headquarters.
Speaking to his military staff on Tuesday, Putin warned Russia could take “military-technical response measures and react harshly to unfriendly steps,” if NATO didn’t end its military training mission in Ukraine and stop equipping the Ukrainian military.
“It was the United States that came with its missiles to our home, to the doorstep of our home,” he said on Thursday. “And you demand from me some guarantees. You should give us guarantees. You! And right away, right now.”
Russia last week sent the U.S. and NATO a framework treaty, demanding the alliance pull back from bases in former satellite countries that are now NATO allies. Brussels and Washington flatly rejected the terms.
Walking away from Ukraine and shuttering bases in NATO countries close to Russia are proposals “we will never agree to,” the administration official said.
“Most of Russia’s demands target NATO and U.S. behavior, yet their military posture is pointed squarely at Ukraine,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation and former Obama administration DoD staffer focused on Russian military capabilities. “Russia is using the threat of force and an artificially imposed diplomatic urgency to set the pace and force concessions, and is essentially creating a hostage situation.”
Any fresh Russian incursion into Ukraine would be the second in a decade, after the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea. Over 13,000 people have died since then in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists and troops have fought the Ukrainian government to a standstill.
Putin’s comments at his press conference were aimed at a domestic audience, pressing the notion that Russian soil is being occupied by unfriendly Western regimes.
Lands that were historically Russian were carved out after the Soviet breakup and handed to Ukraine, Putin said, something Moscow could live with as long as Ukraine remained neutral.
But with several hundred NATO military trainers at a small base in the far west of the country, “they are creating on this territory an anti-Russia, with the constant sending over of contemporary weapons, brainwashing the population,” Putin said. “Imagine the historical perspective of Russia for living from now on, to be always looking over our shoulders?”
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby acknowledged this week that a small team of American military officials recently visited Kyiv to assess the country’s air and missile defense needs, as Washington considers another round of military assistance.
Whatever the U.S. might try to provide in the near-term might be too late if Russia launches an invasion in the next several months, however.
“A multi-domain operation would be devastating for the Ukrainian military, which is why Kyiv is asking for more air defense support,” Massicot said. She added that the talk in Washington about supplying Stingers, Patriot air defense systems and Javelin anti-tank weapons would have only “a marginal benefit at best against a Russian operation of this size, either due to technical reasons, or simply not enough numbers or enough time to deploy and integrate them.”