Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have grim reports of Biden administration briefings to Congress on Putin’s buildup on the borders of Ukraine.
WaPo: Russia could seize Kyiv in days and cause 50,000 civilian casualties in Ukraine, U.S. assessments find:
Russia is close to completing preparations for what appears to be a large-scale invasion of Ukraine that could leave up to 50,000 civilians killed or wounded, decapitate the government in Kyiv within two days, and launch a humanitarian crisis with up to 5 million refugees fleeing the resulting chaos, according to updated U.S. military and intelligence assessments briefed to lawmakers and European partners over the past several days.
The rising concerns come as the Russian military continues to dispatch combat units to the Ukrainian border in both its own territory and Belarus. As of Friday, seven people familiar with the assessments said, there were 83 Russian battalion tactical groups, with about 750 troops each, arrayed for a possible assault. That is up from 60 two weeks ago, and comprises about 70 percent of what Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to have in place if he wants to maximize the operation.
NYT: U.S. Warns of Grim Toll if Putin Pursues Full Invasion of Ukraine:
They also warned of enormous possible human costs if Mr. Putin went ahead with a full invasion, including the potential deaths of 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, 5,000 to 25,000 members of the Ukrainian military and 3,000 to 10,000 members of the Russian military. The invasion, they said, could also result in one million to five million refugees, with many of them pouring into Poland.
Should Mr. Putin decide to invade, American officials believe he is not likely to move until the second half of February. By that point, more ground will have frozen, making it easier to move heavy vehicles and equipment, and the Winter Olympics in Beijing will have ended or be winding down, which could help Mr. Putin avoid antagonizing President Xi Jinping of China, a critical ally for the Russian president.
China has made it clear it would not be happy if Putin invaded Ukraine while the Olympics are still happening. But beyond that,
A Russian invasion of Ukraine could “embarrass Beijing,” because “it suggests that China is willing to tolerate or tacitly support Russia’s efforts to coerce Ukraine,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, told reporters Friday. [WaPo]
China, by the way, has a similar attitude to Russia’s about territories it once controlled: “Once part of China, always part of China.” That applies to Taiwan and Tibet, and China bases its claims to large chunks of the South China Sea on a fourteenth-century map. So for China to be embarrassed when Russia makes the same claim is interesting — though perhaps China’s embarrassment is more over Putin’s bluntness; China likes to think it is more subtle in its aggression.
Putin may also have trouble holding on to Ukraine if he takes it all.
Western intelligence officials also say they have picked up chatter suggesting Russian military leaders are confident they could take Ukraine in a blitzkrieg attack, but worry that they may not be able to hold on to the country, especially if the invasion sets off a significant insurgency. That has prompted speculation inside the NATO alliance that Mr. Putin might invade, seek to change the Ukrainian government and then partly withdraw his forces. [NYT]
In other words, a quick coup to remove Zelensky and install a puppet. I’m not a military strategist, but it seems to me that Putin could accomplish that with a lot less manpower than he has assembled. It’s possible he might send in a small force to carry out the coup, leaving the bulk of his forces on the border to keep the Ukrainians from objecting too loudly.
But I fear that Putin and his hard-line advisors from Soviet days have talked themselves into a corner with their dreams of restoring Russia to its glory days when it was big enough to call itself equal to the United States. Equally, or even more significant, is that Ukraine is where the Russian state began, it is an essential part of the history and spirit of Russia. That is true even if — especially if — Ukrainians no longer see it that way. Twenty years ago, Putin might have gotten more support from them. His snatching of Crimea and Donbas have hardened anti-Russian sentiment since then.
It’s been pointed out recently, on this blog as well as elsewhere, that World Wars I and II started in eastern Europe (WWI in Serbia, WWII in Poland). Both are incomplete object lessons: the Serbian mess could have been contained, but all Europe was armed to the teeth and thought they could fight a war within the constraints of nineteenth-century wars. That’s not quite so true this time, but there is this disturbing commonality between WWI and today: Russia felt bound to come to the aid of fellow Slavs, and it was overconfident in its ability to do so. WWII started with a deliberate false-flag operation: Germany sent soldiers in Polish uniforms into Poland who then “attacked” a German border installation, giving Hitler his pretext to invade. England and France then felt bound to honor their commitment to defend Poland, and the war was on. Russia has been exposed making similar false-flag plans, and while there is no NATO agreement with Ukraine, Europe and the US will feel honor-bound not to let this extreme violation of a sovereign state go by — especially since they guaranteed Ukraine’s safety when it gave up the nuclear weapons the defunct Soviet Union had left behind.
So I am not feeling particularly comfortable tonight.