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Russian troop presence builds near Ukraine’s border

March 29, 2014 at 6:59 PM EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with President Obama on the phone Friday about a possible diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine. Despite the development, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have deployed near the border of Ukraine with no sign of pulling back. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The revelation late yesterday afternoon that Russian President Vladimir Putin had called President Obama raised hopes that the crisis in Ukraine might be resolved through diplomacy. But that’s hardly a sure thing. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have deployed near the border with Ukraine and they show no sign of pulling back. For more about that we’re joined now from Washington by Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. So there are some estimates by Ukrainians that there might be as many as 85,000 Russian troops along the border. Whatever the number is, do we know about the composition of those forces and what can Russia do with that kind of an army?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Well first, we don’t really know the exact structure of that. We have been told that on background there are between 40,000 and 50,000, at least, troops. They haven’t identified which units they belong to. But Russia announced there are going to be exercises and there haven’t been any exercises. They’ve just kept building up a presence, one that could directly go into the eastern Ukraine. The other problem is that troops aren’t the only problem. There are very large numbers of Ministry of Interior units Russia also has. These are almost ideal troops for occupying cities and urban areas. They’re certainly pro-Russian elements in some of the cities in the eastern Ukraine so at almost anytime you could have a Russian thrust into the eastern Ukraine and one that could at least take some cities probably in a matter of days if not hours.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We’ve been focused so much on Crimea, are there other regions that we need to be concerned about? Last week we mentioned Transnistria which is a small region on the border of Moldova and Ukraine.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Russia has a limited presence already in the area. It’s not a major combat presence, but there is no major combat presence in that area — in Moldova, which is a nation to the west or in the Ukraine to the east. So it certainly is an area where Russia could suddenly put pressure on the Ukraine. And there is an airborne guard division, basically, which could be moved in at least in part fairly quickly. Because the Ukraine frankly is not capable of effective air defense. So Russia certainly has the ability to put pressure on the Ukraine in two different directions. And I think what’s of great concern of the Ukraine. When Putin called Obama, he didn’t talk about negotiations alone, he talked about the fact that Russia had no intention of invading if the Ukraine did not have hard line elements in its government, if there are no protests against the Russians. So it really was not in any sense a quick initiative towards peace.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So countries like Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, they’ve been asking for increased NATO presence. Do they have reason to be scared and concerned?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think really we have not seen any element of russian mobilization or deployment. But these small Baltic states are near major Russian forces. They don’t really have to do anything, they’re already there to put pressure on them. And we have moved U.S. aircraft into one of those states, as we have into Poland. But I think certainly in today’s climate, the problem is if the Ukraine becomes a major source of confrontation between east and west, if Russia goes beyond the Crimea and thrusts into the Ukraine, then NATO’s response would have to be largely in other areas and that could trigger a process of confrontation that none of these states can predict.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic International Studies, joining us from Washington. Thanks so much.