NATO commander: Russian troops near Ukraine could attack on 12 hours’ notice

BY Associated Press  April 2, 2014 at 4:00 PM EST

Russian soldiers patrol the area surrounding the Ukrainian military unit in Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, on March 20, 2014. Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Russian soldiers patrol the area surrounding the Ukrainian military unit in Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, on March 20, 2014. Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The estimated 40,000 Russian troops poised along the border with Ukraine are capable of executing an attack order on 12 hours’ notice, according to the American general who commands all NATO forces in Europe.

In remarks to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Reuters news agency, Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove said that despite Russian claims it was beginning to withdraw troops, it is not yet apparent that any significant number are leaving the border area.

Breedlove’s statements were confirmed Wednesday by a U.S. defense official in Brussels who is familiar with the general’s comments.

According to the official, Breedlove said the Russian force is well-equipped and capable of achieving Russian military objectives in Ukraine or beyond within three to five days.

In response to Russia’s troop buildup, the U.S. has sought to reassure its NATO allies in Eastern Europe by reinforcing aspects of the U.S. military presence, including the temporary addition of F-16 fighter jets at a training base in Poland.

On Wednesday a Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said the U.S. intends to soon send a Navy ship into the Black Sea as an additional gesture intended to underscore the U.S. commitment to defend European allies.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO but is associated with the alliance through other arrangements. On Tuesday two senior American defense officials met with Ukrainian officials in Kiev to discuss the current crisis.

In his interviews with The New York Times and other news organizations, Breedlove highlighted his concern that the Russians may not be carrying out their promised partial withdrawal of troops from the Ukrainian border region.

“What we can say now is that we do see a battalion-size unit moving, but what we can’t confirm is that it is leaving the battlefield,” the Times quoted him as saying. A battalion generally numbers between 500 and 800 troops.

Breedlove said the Russian force is a mix of planes, helicopters, artillery, infantry and commandos. And they are backed up by a considerable support force that would enable the combat forces to move quickly into Ukraine or beyond, he added.