Russia potentially weeks away from being able to invade Ukraine

Correction: The original headline for this segment suggested that Russia was likely weeks away from invading Ukraine. In fact, the discussion was about Russia's progress in preparing for a possible attack. The headline has been updated. We regret the error.

The United States on Friday agreed to submit written responses next week to Russia's demands over how to end the crisis over Ukraine. The announcement came during a high level diplomatic meeting in Geneva, as Russia maintains overwhelming force along the Ukrainian border, and has now deployed to neighboring Belarus. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    U.S. officials agreed today to submit written responses next week to Russia's demands on how to end the crisis over Ukraine.

    The announcement came during a high-level diplomatic meeting in Geneva, as Russia maintains overwhelming military force along the Ukrainian border and has now deployed troops to neighboring Belarus.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Geneva today, the U.S. and Russia's top diplomats agreed to keep the diplomatic path open.

    Secretary of State Antony Blinken said talks would continue.

    Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: We anticipate that we will be able to share with Russia our concerns and ideas in more detail and in writing next week, and we agreed to further discussions after that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Russia's demands legitimate.

  • Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister (through translator):

    Our concerns are not about the imaginary, but about the real threats and facts that nobody is really hiding, stuffing Ukraine with weapons, sending hundreds of Western military trainers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But near Ukraine's border, it is Russian weapons that aren't hiding. Today, the Russian Defense Ministry released new video of soldiers training with the tanks they would use to launch a full-scale invasion.

    And with the Russian tanks and troops that arrived this week in Belarus, the U.S. says about 100,000 Russian troops surround Ukraine in a half-dozen locations. The troops in Belarus are only a few hundred miles north of Kiev, and could link up to surround Kiev with troops in nearby Klimovo, where the Russian buildup can be seen in satellite photos released this week.

    Today, Blinken warned the threat to Ukraine's government was diverse and possibly fatal.

  • Antony Blinken:

    We have seen plans to undertake a variety of destabilizing actions, some of them short of the overt use of force, to destabilize Ukraine, to topple the government.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In response, the West is accelerating military aid.

    This week, the U.S. fast-tracked more Javelin anti-tank missiles that senior U.S. officials say are now deployed to key transit points. And for the first time, the U.S. authorized the transfer from Baltic allies of surface-to-air Stinger missiles. They can target Russian helicopters and low-flying jets, used most famously to help the Afghan resistance defeat the Soviet military in the 1980s.

    Ukraine has also deployed drones from NATO member Turkey that have successfully targeted Russian tanks in previous conflicts. In Eastern Ukraine this week, Ukrainian soldiers said the support supplies some solace.

  • Soldier (through translator):

    It shows that we are not alone, that we have support, and we can count on our forces and our allies' power.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the U.S. has rejected the idea of supplementing Ukraine's military with its own forces, and the Russian forces just across the border, are overwhelming.

    For more on Russia's posture on Ukraine's borders and what the U.S. and West are doing about it, we turn to Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia studies program at the Center for Naval Analyses, or CNA.

    Michael Kofman, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    We have seen this week the U.S., the U.K. rush weapons to Ukraine, including those stinger Surface-to-air missiles. What's the significance of that?

    Michael Kofman, Center for Naval Analyses: It's a big development that the United States and other countries are willing to rush military equipment and weapons to Ukraine at this stage.

    Unfortunately, it's not going to make a strategic difference in a conflict. And I don't think it's necessarily going to deter Russia. In this respect, you see the United States basically now preparing for the worst. I think there's, to some extent, almost a resignation that conflict is very likely.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Stingers, of course, can target Russian helicopters, even Russian jets flying below a certain altitude.

    Why don't they change the calculus?

  • Michael Kofman:

    Russian retains tremendous quantitative and qualitative superiority over Ukraine's military.

    While it is going to do something and it will in the margins raise the cost of the Russian military effort, depending on what the actual military campaign might be, it's ultimately indecisive or indeterminate towards the outcome, nor with the other tactical level capabilities, like anti-tank missiles and the like.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, even if what we have been talking about, some of these new weapons that are being forwarded to Ukraine, doesn't make a huge difference in the calculus, how are Ukrainians situated on the ground to be able to exert at least some cost on Russia?

  • Michael Kofman:

    So, the Ukrainian military is actually positioned to deny any kind of smaller incursion.

    That's why a Russian military campaign would have to be much larger than what we have seen before and involve the use of airpower. But Ukraine's military is not in a position to defend what is the largest country in Europe. Much of Ukraine's military power is concentrated very much forward east. It is easily cut off or encircled. And it's likely Russian forces would conduct a multi-axis attack across Ukraine's eastern regions, the south, and the north.

    Ukraine's military is simply not in a position to defend all these fronts with a much smaller force and big shortages in logistics, air defense and the like.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What has Russia deployed to Ukraine's border that gives it that superiority over the Ukrainian forces?

  • Michael Kofman:

    It's safe to say that Russia has close to 100,000 troops or that sort of potential prepared for an invasion, with reserves and auxiliary.

    Much of this is prepositioned equipment, and quite a few don't have the personnel already there with them. But that can arrive on short notice. So, the honest answer is that, when you look at Russia's military buildup to date, they are potentially weeks away from being able to conduct a large-scale military offensive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that weeks away, is that calendar based on Russian deployments of personnel or the weather, or perhaps both?

  • Michael Kofman:

    So, from my point of view, it's much more based on the forces that are still moving and the capabilities that are still en route towards Ukraine.

    There's a host of units moving from Central Russia and the Russian far east. There are amphibious assault ships that are actually currently in transit across Europe and the Mediterranean. They will take some time to arrive to the Black Sea fleet. And there's still quite a few components for military operation, like personnel and logistics, that aren't there yet.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This week, we have seen Russian troops arrive in Belarus, including an area just a few hundred miles north of Kiev.

    What additional capacity does that provide Russia?

  • Michael Kofman:

    It's a significant development.

    I mean, it tells us that a Russian military operation is likely to be very large and won't just involve Ukraine's eastern regions. It will very likely involve a pincer movement to encircle Kiev from both the northeast and the northwest, as Russia now has a substantial number of forces deployed in Belarus and to the south. There's a sizable Russian military buildup in Crimea.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so the strategic consequence of being able to encircle the capital is?

  • Michael Kofman:

    It suggests that one of their main political objectives may be to conduct regime change, and then impose a political settlement on Ukraine.

    And this — by the way, if it sounds dark, it's actually one of the more optimistic scenarios. An alternative variant is that Russia actually intends to partition Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We have seen other tactics and operations from Russia in the past, notably cyber operations, but also more use of special forces, so-called little green men.

    What are the capacities there? And what are the likelihood that Russia uses those, instead of some traditional ground invasion?

  • Michael Kofman:

    So, at the end of the day, these conflicts are decided by large-scale conventional military operations.

    I think, in any initial phase, you would see an air campaign combined with strikes, an offensive cyber warfare. But that would likely be the initial phase, eventually followed up by an offensive ground force operation. They have already invaded Ukraine more than once. And they have already occupied an annexed Ukrainian territory too.

    And these efforts have clearly not been successful in achieving Russian political aims. So, it's somewhat incredulous to believe that they would seek attempt again that which has not worked.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Is there anything that you see that can forestall war?

  • Michael Kofman:

    The biggest problem is that it doesn't really look like Russia's diplomatic effort is particularly genuine.

    Russian demands are nonstarters, and they seem almost designed to fail. And the latest meeting between Secretary Blinken and Lavrov suggests that Russia is very interested in receiving a formal refusal to its demands much more than it is interested in actually achieving a diplomatic compromise.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Kofman, thank you very much.

  • Michael Kofman:

    My pleasure. Thanks for having on your program.

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