Ukrainian commanders say Russian invasion will overwhelm them


KYIV, Ukraine – On the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Ukrainian armed forces this week, the country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky donned a helmet and bulletproof vest to tour the trenches and announced with great fanfare the delivery of new tanks, armored vehicles and ships to front-line units engaged in the fight against Russian forces and Kremlin-backed separatists.

While weapon systems can help maintain parity in the slow war of attrition that has prevailed for years, neither they nor anything else the Ukrainian military can now muster would be enough to repel the Russian assault. background that Ukrainian and Western officials say that Moscow seems to be preparing. With nearly 100,000 troops now massed across Ukraine’s eastern, northern and southern borders, and more on the way, even Ukrainian officials responsible for their country’s defense recognize that without a significant influx of resources, their forces will fail. are not very lucky.

“Unfortunately, Ukraine must be objective at this stage,” said General Kyrylo O. Budanov, head of the Ukrainian military intelligence service. “There are not enough military resources to repel a full-scale attack by Russia if it begins without the support of Western forces. “

General Budanov described his nightmarish vision of a Russian invasion that would begin with air strikes and rocket attacks initially targeting ammunition depots and troops in the trenches. Very quickly, he said, the Ukrainian army would be incapacitated, its leaders unable to coordinate a defense and supply the front. After that, he said, the onus would fall on the frontline commanders to continue the fight on their own.

“They will hold out as long as there are bullets,” General Budanov said. “They will be able to use what they have in their hands, but believe me without the delivery of supplies, there is not an army in the world that can hold out.”

While Russia may be militarily ready to launch an invasion of Ukraine as early as January or February, Ukraine and Western intelligence services say there is no indication that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has decided to do so. to do. In a video call with President Biden on Tuesday, Mr Putin dismissed concerns over the build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border, blaming the United States and NATO, which he accused of threatening the security of Russia by supporting the Ukrainian army with weapons and training.

Russian troops are on their own territory,” Putin’s adviser Yuri V. Ushakov said during a briefing with journalists after the presidents spoke. “They don’t threaten anyone.

Yet the build-up of troops and heavy weapons at the border has forced Ukrainian authorities to face hard truths in recent weeks. The US intelligence community estimated that Russia had made plans for an offensive involving 175,000 troops.

Ukraine has only slightly more enlisted soldiers and officers in its entire army, according to the Defense Ministry. It is overtaken on land, at sea and in the air, with only around 200 aircraft in its air force, including transport vehicles, less than the number of fighter jets that Russia has already deployed to the Ukrainian border.

Russian forces include combat-ready submarines and frigates in the Black Sea armed with cruise missiles and land units equipped with Iskander-M ballistic missiles, while Ukraine lacks serious missile defense systems. Russian missiles could wipe out a significant portion of Ukraine’s military in less than an hour, said Robert Lee, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and doctorate holder. candidate at King’s College London who is a Russian military expert.

“If Russia is serious about unleashing its conventional capabilities, they could inflict massive damage in a very short period of time,” Lee said. “They can devastate the Ukrainian army in the east very quickly, in the first 30 to 40 minutes.”

The Ukrainian army is no longer the child’s play it once was. In 2014, elite Russian troops were able to capture the entire Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine without firing. When the Russian-backed separatists subsequently took control of part of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, Ukraine had to rely on brigades of volunteers who took up arms, with little or no military training, to help repel the insurgency.

But the Ukrainian army resumed its course, fighting the separatists in an impasse and putting an end to the most serious hostilities. He did so with the help of Western allies. The United States alone has provided $ 2.5 billion in military aid, including high-tech surveillance and communications equipment and drones. In November, the United States delivered around 88 tonnes ammunition, which is part of a $ 60 million military aid package promised by the Biden administration.

President Biden on Wednesday ruled out deploying US forces to Ukraine to deter Russia. But there are more than 150 U.S. military advisers in Ukraine, a combination of U.S. special forces and the National Guard, currently the 53rd Florida National Guard Infantry Combat Brigade, according to two U.S. Department of Defense officials. , who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. troop deployments. A dozen other NATO countries also have military advisers in Ukraine, officials said.

Under the Trump administration, the Ukrainians received Javelin anti-tank missiles for the first time. Ukrainian forces have so far refrained from firing javelins on the battlefield, in part out of a desire to avoid upsetting the Kremlin.

The Biden administration continued to supply them, delivering a new missile cache in October. John F. Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Wednesday that there were no conditions or restrictions placed on the Javelins except that Ukrainian forces use them “responsibly” and “legitimately. defense”.

In an interview with Radio Liberty this month, General Oleksandr Pavlyuk, commander of the Joint Operation Forces fighting the separatists, said the Javelins had previously been deployed to military units in eastern Ukraine. A senior Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military issues, confirmed that Javelin missiles were deployed to frontline military units a month ago, but have yet to be released. fired in combat.

“The Javelins are there, and if our enemies use tanks, they will be used,” the official said.

The Biden administration has remained vague on how it might come to Ukraine’s defense in the event of an invasion.

In his video call with Mr. Putin on Tuesday, President Biden looked his counterpart in the eye and warned that the United States would go beyond economic sanctions imposed on Russia after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 if Mr. Putin was deciding to order military action, according to a report by Jake Sullivan, the presidential national security adviser. What those sanctions might be has not been clear, although few expect the United States to commit significant military assistance beyond what has already been provided.

Ukraine’s lack of firm commitment from Western donors is a source of consternation for Ukrainian officials.

“They have to decide, either we are allies as they declare it – and in this case the allies are helping each other – or they have to say that is not exactly the case,” said General Budanov, the chief of intelligence. military. “If the civilized world is to avoid catastrophe – and it will be a catastrophe for everyone – we need military technical support now, not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow, not in a year. Now.”

Those who understand that such a level of support is unlikely have started to speak gloomily of popular armed resistance against any Russian occupation. In an interview, General Pavlyuk noted that Ukraine has up to half a million people with military experience. If the West does not come to the aid of Ukraine, he said, “we will start a partisan war.”

“Eight years have passed and there are many, many people with military experience who are prepared with guns in hand to fight,” he said.

A senior Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said if all else fails, the military will simply open up its weapons depots and allow the Ukrainian people to take whatever they need to defend themselves and their defense. his family.

Eric schmitt contributed to Washington reporting.

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