Russia has enough troops ready to take Kyiv, says former Ukraine defence chief

Members of Ukraine’s territorial defence forces, volunteer military units of the armed forces, train close to Kyiv, Ukraine. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Russia now has enough troops to seize the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, or another city, but Moscow’s forces are not yet sufficient for a full takeover and occupation of the country, according to Ukraine’s former defence minister.

In an interview with the Guardian, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, former minister of defence of Ukraine, said the situation looked “pretty dire”. “Russia could now seize any city in Ukraine. But we still don’t see the 200,000 troops needed for a full-scale invasion,” he said.

His comments follow an ominous briefing by the Biden administration about the Kremlin’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border. The White House said on Saturday that Moscow had assembled at least 70% of the firepower it needs to give Vladimir Putin the option of a major military operation by mid-February.

US officials have warned that a full Russian attack could lead to the swift capture of Kyiv and potentially result in 50,000 civilians killed or wounded.

They said the Russian army had now positioned 83 “battalion tactical groups” near Ukraine, each with between 750 and 1,000 soldiers. The figure has risen from 60 battalion groups two weeks ago, they added.

Speaking on Sunday, Zagorodnyuk said he did not believe a Russian invasion was inevitable. He said the remorseless Russian troop build up was proceeding along textbook lines but that the Kremlin’s intentions and strategy remained opaque.

“We don’t see a political endgame here,” he said. “If Putin seizes Kyiv there will be full-scale war. The Ukrainian army forces will fight. There will be enormous resistance for all time. Why would you do that?”

He added: “Ukraine is not going to say ‘Let’s join Russia’. This is understood. Unless, of course, Putin is totally delusional and has his own understanding of reality. There will be blood, sanctions. Nobody needs that kind of international war in Europe right now.”

Zagorodnyuk said the US administration was right to release intelligence about Russian plans and capabilities. On Thursday, US officials claimed to have evidence of an elaborateplot by the Kremlin to make a “very graphic” fake video of a Ukrainian attack as a pretext for a military invasion.

Downing Street said on Friday it had “high confidence” that Russia was planning to fabricate a reason for attacking Ukraine. Zagorodnyuk said the plot seemed “a bit exotic” but added that Moscow had previously carried out similar “false flag” operations.

From Thursday, Russia will stage major military exercises with Belarus, within striking distance of Kyiv. According to the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, Russia has deployed 30,000 combat troops, elite Spetsnaz units, Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 missile defence systems.

In total, there are now 135,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border. They are stationed close to the Donbas region in the east, where the Ukrainian army has fought a low-intensity conflict with pro-Moscow separatists for almost eight years.

Russia has moved troops up into Crimea, in the south, which Putin seized and annexed in 2014. Its forces are also stationed in the breakaway republic of Transnistria, next to Moldova, in the west.

US officials briefing on Saturday said 14 battalion tactical groups were on their way to the border from other parts of Russia. The US believes the Kremlin would want between 110 and 130 battalion tactical groups for use in a full-scale invasion, but stress that Putin could decide on a more limited incursion.

Including support units, Russia could be aiming to have 150,000 troops in place for a full-blown military offensive, one US official said, adding that the buildup could reach that level in the next couple of weeks.

Ukraine’s embattled pro-western president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, made Zagorodnyuk defence minister after winning a landslide election victory in 2019. Zagorodnyuk later left government and now runs a thinktank, the Centre for Defence Strategies.

“Russia has increased its troop numbers in Belarus. They are getting ready for a potential invasion. The main concern I have is for Kyiv,” he said.

In the last two weeks, the number of battalion tactical groups (BTG) in the border region has risen to 83 from 60 as of Friday and 14 more are in transit, the officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.

As to the timing of an invasion, the ground is expected to reach peak freeze around February 15th the officials said, allowing for off-road mechanised transit by Russian military units. Such conditions would continue until the end of March.

That timeline and the growing number and capability of Russian forces close to Ukraine could suggest the window for diplomacy is shutting.

The US officials did not provide evidence to back up their estimates of Russia’s forces.

As Russia masses more than 100,000 troops near the border, it has said it is not planning an invasion but could take unspecified military action if its security demands are not met. Those include a promise that Nato will never admit Ukraine, a demand Washington and Nato have said is unacceptable.

Washington believes Russia may choose other options than a full-scale invasion, including a limited incursion, and does not believe president Vladimir Putin had made a final decision, the officials said.

But they said Mr Putin is putting in place a force that can execute all scenarios.

If Russia were to invade the capital of Kyiv, it could fall within a couple of days, the US officials said.

A full-scale invasion would cause major casualties, one of the officials said.

Ukraine could suffer 5,000 to 25,000 troop casualties, while Russia’s troop casualties could be between 3,000 and 10,000, and civilian casualties could range from 25,000 to 50,000, according to US estimates, the official said.

A full invasion would also prompt the flight of millions of refugees and internally displaced persons in Europe, Washington believes. –Reuters with additional reporting from The Guardian