US thinks Russia is planning nuclear exercise to warn western Ukraine

US military and intelligence officials believe Russia plans to hold a major nuclear weapons exercise this month to warn NATO not to intervene if President Vladimir Putin decides to invade Ukraine .

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, told House of Representatives lawmakers on Thursday that Putin plans to begin the drills in mid-February, according to a congressional aide with knowledge of the session. information behind closed doors.

Russia typically holds its annual nuclear exercises — which involve testing intercontinental ballistic missiles from land, sea and air — in the fall. But the United States believes Putin decided to hold them earlier this year as a show of force in case he orders his army to further invade Ukraine.

The United States believes that the optimal time for a Russian invasion would be from mid-February to the end of March.

Timing the exercises with an invasion would send a powerful reminder to NATO of the strength of Moscow’s nuclear forces, which are the largest in the world. Russia has just under 4,500 nuclear warheads in its stockpile, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

“It would be an incredibly provocative and disturbing message if they did this at the same time as an invasion of Ukraine,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a nuclear weapons policy expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

The United States has not determined whether Putin decided to invade Ukraine. But along with its allies, Washington is increasingly alarmed by the continued military buildup of Russian forces around the border with Ukraine.

Over the past two weeks, Russia has increased the number of battalion battlegroups – which can range from 750 to 1,000 troops – deployed in the border region from 60 to 83, according to a NATO source. 14 other BTGs are also in transit to the border area. The United States believes that Russia has also deployed between 1,200 and 2,100 special operations troops in the region.

The battalion’s new battle groups and other troops deployed in the region bring the total number of Russian forces in the region to over 100,000.

Washington estimates that Russia has deployed enough forces for a limited attack, but has positioned only 70% of the troops it would need for a full-scale invasion, which would include an assault on Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

US military experts believe Russia has the capability to deploy enough forces for a full invasion by mid-February, which would coincide with the scheduled start of its nuclear weapons exercises.

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden ordered the deployment of 2,000 US troops to Poland and Germany, in a bid to send a signal to Putin about NATO alliance strength. On Thursday, the United States accused Russia of preparing to fabricate an attack from Ukraine or the West, in a “false flag” operation intended to create a pretext for an invasion.

On Tuesday, Putin accused the United States of trying to “drag” Russia into armed conflict and said it ignored Russia’s security concerns and its demand for guarantees that NATO would not admit Ukraine in the future.

The Russian leader on Friday received support from Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics. In a joint statement, they said they “oppose further NATO enlargement”.

A senior US official said China should have used the meeting with Putin to encourage him to defuse Ukraine.

“If Russia further invades Ukraine and China looks the other way, it suggests that China is willing to tolerate or tacitly support Russia’s efforts to coerce Ukraine even when they embarrass Beijing, harm the European security and threaten world peace and economic stability,” he said. .

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