The Pentagon has warned that Russia has amassed enough military assets along Ukraine’s border to launch an invasion at any time, an accumulation that has given the Kremlin “options”, including an attack aimed at occupying the entire country.
The assessment, made by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Friday, came after Russian President Vladimir Putin said Washington’s response to the Kremlin’s security demands were inadequate, asking new questions about whether the diplomatic channel to resolve the stalemate is closed.
A U.S. defense official told the Financial Times late Friday that Russia has now moved blood supplies near its border with Ukraine, a move that U.S. military experts said earlier would be another sign that Putin is approaching invasion. Russia needs blood supplies to help heal soldiers who have suffered casualties. The move was first reported by Reuters.
Taken together, warnings from Washington and Moscow and NATO and the Russian military seemed to bring the war base closer. Although the United States and the Atlantic Alliance have said they will not send troops to Ukrainian soil if Russia invades, some allies have hastily arming the US-backed Ukrainian army.
Harsh rhetoric has frightened leaders in Kiev, who have expressed concern that an escalation on the brink could lead Europe into widespread conflict. On Friday, Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, called on the United States and other Western supporters to soften their rattlesnakes.
“We understand the risks,” Zelensky told a news conference, challenging some of the Pentagon’s assessments, saying “we don’t see a bigger escalation” than last spring when the Russian military began to strengthen. “We don’t need this panic,” he added.
Despite Zelensky’s pleas, the United States and the West continued to prepare for war. U.S. military planners are preparing an 8,500-strong force to deploy to NATO countries in Eastern Europe to protect the flank of the alliance. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that four NATO members border Ukraine and that obligations under the agreement mean Washington is obliged to defend them.
“I will soon be relocating troops to Eastern Europe and NATO countries,” President Joe Biden said later Friday. “Not much.”
Austin said that although Putin had gathered enough forces to invade, the United States believes the Russian president has not yet “made a final decision to use those forces against Ukraine.”
Still, the build-up has reached a point where “more options are available to it, including occupying cities and significant territories,” Austin added.
At a Pentagon press conference, Milley agreed with the assessment. “With 100,000 soldiers – you have combined formations, ground maneuvers, artillery, missiles, you have air and all the other parts that go with it. There is potential that could be triggered with very, very little warning, ”he said.
U.S. officials said the road to a diplomatic resolution remained open and called on Putin to resign. But in talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin said a written U.S. response to Russia’s security demands had been forwarded to Moscow. earlier this week, did not address his biggest concern: the expansion of NATO towards Russia’s borders.
“Attention has been drawn to the fact that US and NATO responses have not taken into account such fundamental Russian concerns as preventing NATO enlargement,” the Kremlin said in a statement, summarizing Putin’s comments to Macron.
In Paris, however, a senior French official said Putin had told Macron he was “not seeking confrontation”.
While diplomacy stalled, the United States and its allies continued to steel themselves for the economic consequences of the Russian invasion. The US and the EU have pledged to work together to protect Europe’s energy supplies if the attack results in a collapse in gas supplies to the continent.
In addition, the Biden administration met with U.S. banks to warn them of a possible financial recovery from the major economic sanctions Washington has promised to launch in the event of an invasion.
“As we have clearly said, in addition to the significant economic and diplomatic costs that Russia will bear, the move against Ukraine will achieve exactly what Russia says it does not want – a strengthened and resolved NATO alliance,” Austin said.
The United States is in talks with gas producers such as Qatar to make up for any European shortfall, and in a joint statement, Biden and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said they were “cooperating with governments and market operators” to ensure emergency supplies.
As part of these efforts, the EU is preparing to send a delegation to Azerbaijan. Russia provides 40 percent of EU gas, and officials worry Moscow could retaliate with Western sanctions by cutting pipeline flows.
Brussels is also negotiating with some Asian countries on possible LNG replacement agreements, a Commission official said. “What we are doing is to reach as many of the suppliers as possible,” they added.
Kadri Simson, the EU’s energy commissioner, will fly to Azerbaijan early next month for talks with the country’s energy and natural resources ministers, in a bid to raise support for additional gas flows to Europe, an EU official said.
Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, said this month that Moscow was already restricting gas supplies to Europe, noting that Russian gas exports to Europe had fallen 25 percent year-on-year in the last three months of 2021.
The IEA believes Russia retains at least one-third of the gas it could send to Europe.
Additional reports by Polina Ivanova from Moscow, Victor Mallet in Paris, Gary Silverman in New York and Roman Olearchyk in Kiev
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