U.S. intelligence agencies warned Congress late Wednesday that Russian military forces are massing near Ukraine’s borders and appear ready to launch an invasion with little or no warning.
According to defense and intelligence officials, Russian military forces include more than 20,000 troops massing along Ukraine’s eastern border, with some units within 10 miles of the border.
“We’re certainly watching the buildups very, very closely,” said a senior defense official. “They are reinforcing their forces in the southern and eastern portions of Ukraine.”
According to the officials, buildup is alarming because of the numbers and the level of readiness.
“Based on both the size and the types of forces, they certainly have the capability and the readiness level to move into Ukraine should they choose to do this,” the defense official said.
Adding to the war fears are signs the Russians are positioned to carry out an invasion with little or no warning.
Another intelligence indictor was the Russian military announcement Wednesday that an undisclosed section of airspace was closed for “military exercises.”
However, the officials said concerns about the massed troops were heightened by the lack of signs that the troops, tanks and armored vehicles are not conducting in exercises.
“What we’re seeing is not a lot of exercising, but a lot of reinforcing and setting in place,” the defense official said.
One theory of possible Russian military action is that the troops and tanks in eastern Ukraine are preparing to invade and take control of three major eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkov, Loans, and Donetsk, and then create a land bridge that would allow easy access to Russia’s recently annexed Crimea, on the Black Sea. Currently, Russia has access to Crimea only by ship.
At the Pentagon Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was asked about military action by Russia and said he spoke last week with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu. “I asked him specifically why the Russians were building up their western border, and I asked him specifically what the intentions were as to that buildup,” Hagel said. “He told me that they had no intention of crossing the border into Ukraine.”
Ukrainian military forces have been mobilizing for the past several weeks since the Russians forcibly annexed Crimea. Crimea then held a referendum to join the Russian Federation. Among the Ukrainian military action in recent days has been the digging of an anti-tank trench along borders.
A classified intelligence briefing for members of Congress Wednesday afternoon prompted the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, and seven other committee members to issue an urgent appeal to President Obama for the administration to take steps to head off a military attack.
“We write today with urgency and alarm, based on new information in the committee’s possession,” the lawmakers stated in a letter to Obama. “We are gravely concerned about the aggressive posture of Russian forces along the eastern border of Ukraine, as well as reports that Moscow may be making threatening moves towards allies in the Baltics.”
The congressmen asked the administration to share intelligence with Ukraine’s government to take steps to protect the country.
“We also believe it is imperative that the United States take precautionary steps to improve the posture and readiness of U.S. military forces in the region, and pursue additional measures to bolster the security of our eastern and central European allies and partners,” they said.
Details of the intelligence remain classified. However, a congressional aide said the letter to the president was based on intelligence indicating a military action could take place soon.
The Russian forces include large-scale troop movements under the guise of military exercises, along with the presence of significant numbers of Russian Spetsnaz special operations commandos operating in eastern Ukraine that are engaged in fomenting unrest, the congressmen stated in their letter.
Additionally, there are troop and naval movements by the Russians near the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, they said.
“There is deep apprehension that Moscow may invade eastern and southern Ukraine, pressing west to Transdniestria [near southwestern Ukraine], and also seek land grabs in the Baltics,” the letter stated.
According to the letter, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who is also NATO forces commander, and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, are alarmed by the potential for new Russian military action.
Breedlove has been in Washington this week for congressional testimony and has raised concerns with senior U.S. officials. “The [Russian] force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizeable and very, very ready,” Breedlove said earlier this week in Brussels. “There is absolutely sufficient [Russian] force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestria if the decision was made to do that and that is very worrisome.”
The lawmakers urged the president to increase the alert posture of U.S. forces in Europe “without delay” including the stationing of forward-deployed U.S. quick reaction forces.
“A failure to take such deterrent actions in the face of continued Russian aggression will certainly risk the very diplomatic and peaceful outcome that we all desire,” they stated. “Inaction by the U.S. and NATO will only further embolden Russian military planners, making further escalation more–not less–likely.”
The members also called for the United States to call an emergency session of the North Atlantic Council to request that NATO allies bolster their force posture and readiness “in the event that an Article V response is required.”
Article V is the section of NATO’s charter that directs the use of military forces.
“Mr. President, we still have opportunity to deter Russia aggression, but President Putin must see our commitment to Ukraine and to our European allies and partners,” the letter said. “He must visibly see our resolve, including our military resolve, and clearly understand the costs.”
In addition to McKeon, the letter was signed by Committee Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R., Va.), Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), Rep. Michael R. Turner (R., Ohio), Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), Rep. Robert J. Wittnam (R., Va.), and Rep. Joseph J. Heck (R., Nev.).