The Russian military’s aerial offensive in Ukraine will pave the way for a grinding ground invasion expected to attempt to overthrow the government in Kyiv, according to a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
“It’s our assessment that they have every intention of decapitating the government and installing their own method of governance, which would explain these early moves towards Kyiv,” the U.S. official says.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sweeping offensive has drawn worldwide condemnation, sunk global stocks and pushed Europe and the world to the cusp of a wider war. After months of diplomatic attempts to stop Russia’s military actions, the bombardment was carried out. “The Russian military has begun a brutal assault on Ukraine without provocation, without justification, without necessity,” President Joe Biden said Thursday at the White House. “This is a premeditated attack.”
Biden issued tougher sanctions to Russia and ordered the deployment of 7,000 German troops. This deployment includes an Army armored battalion combat team. It is part of a realignment in American firepower to counter Putin. Biden insists that U.S. troops won’t fight in Ukraine. However, he has increased defenses in neighboring countries and moved approximately 14,000 soldiers eastward onto the continent over the last three weeks. This was in response to the crisis.
While Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it borders four member nations—countries that Biden has pledged to protect at all costs. “The United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power,” he said. “This is a dangerous moment for Europe.”
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According to a senior U.S. defense officer, 75 Russian planes attacked Ukraine’s air defenses. The attack began at dawn and ended hours later. More than 160 missiles were fired from the Black Sea ground batteries. The targets included ammunition warehouses, military barracks, and almost 10 airfields across the country.
Russian forces invaded Ukraine on three major axes. They were south of Belarus, westward from Russia, and northward from Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea, in northern Ukraine. This was illegally taken by Russia in 2014. Ukrainian authorities said Russia had seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, but U.S. officials could not confirm what that meant.
According to the U.S. senior official, most fighting takes place around Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. There, Russian forces launched an aerial assault. Ukraine’s Health Minister Viktor Lyashko said at least 57 Ukrainians have been reported killed as a result of the Russian invasion, with at least 169 wounded. Officials from the United States were left scrambling to calculate the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We do not have a good sense of total damage,” the official says. “We do not have a good sense of casualties.”
With airports under attack, small numbers of people fleeing the violence have started streaming over the nation’s borders, the official said. U.S. paratroopers stationed in Poland were told about the possibility of seeing tens to thousands of refugees. “
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Although the Russians may have carried out sporadic cyberattacks against websites of the Ukrainian government, the U.S. is yet to view the expected electromagnetic attacks that Russia might use to block satellite communications or jam communication. “We don’t believe that the full scope of Russian electronic warfare capabilities have come into play,” the U.S. official says. “And they may yet.”
In his statement announcing the invasion Thursday, Putin warned against any efforts to deter Moscow’s forces. Others interpreted the bellicose statement as suggesting that Russia could use nuclear weapons. “Anyone who tries to interfere with us, or even more so, to create threats for our country and our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history,” Putin said. “We are ready for any turn of events.”
It was a stark shift from the sober, almost mournful restraint that has characterized U.S. and Russian leadership’s comments on the use of the world’s most powerful weapons since the end of World War II. Putin’s comments drew the attention of the White House and the Pentagon as American officials watched the Russian assault in real-time.
“We haven’t seen a conventional move like this, nation-state to nation-state, since World War II—certainly nothing on this size and scope and scale,” the senior U.S. official says. “If it unfolds the way we have come to believe that it will, it has every potential to be very bloody, very costly and very impactful on European security writ large, perhaps for a long, long time to come.”