Russia has more than 92,000 troops amassed around Ukraine’s borders and is preparing for an attack by the end of January or beginning of February, the head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency told Military Times.
Such an attack would likely involve airstrikes, artillery and armor attacks followed by airborne assaults in the east, amphibious assaults in Odessa and Mariupul and a smaller incursion through neighboring Belarus, Ukraine Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov told Military Times Saturday morning in an exclusive interview.
Russia’s large-scale Zapad 21 military exercise earlier this year proved, for instance, that they can drop upwards of 3,500 airborne and special operations troops at once, he said.
The attack Russia is preparing, said Budanov, would be far more devastating than anything before seen in the conflict that began in 2014 that has seen some 14,000 Ukrainians killed.
Speaking to the Washington Post on Friday, Ukraine’s new Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said it was unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet decided to attack.
But Russia is building capacity to do so, Budanov told Military Times, increasing troop levels and weapons systems in occupied Crimea and staging systems like Iskandar short-range ballistic missile systems and other weapons elsewhere near the border. And he scoffed at suggestions that the brutal weather conditions during that time of the year would dissuade the Russians from attacking.
“It is no problem for us and the Russians,” Budanov said of fighting in the frigid weather.
Any such attack, however, would first follow a series of psychological operations currently underway designed to destabilize Ukraine and undermine its ability to fight, said Budanov, speaking through an interpreter.
“They want to foment unrest, through protests and meetings, that show the people are against the government,” he said.
Those efforts include ongoing anti-COVID-19 vaccination protests that Budanov said have been organized by Russia, which is also trying to stoke unrest related to the economy and energy supplies.
In addition, Budanov said Russia is trying to whip up anti-government sentiment over an incident dubbed “Wagnergate” — a controversy involving about 30 members of the Russian private military group responsible for attacks inside Ukraine. The Wagner group members, who made their way to Belarus, were supposed to be brought back to Ukraine to be detained, but instead wound up being sent to Russia with the help of the Belarus KGB, Budanov said.
Russian psychological operations are being used to show “our authorities betrayed the people,” said Budanov.
The ongoing border conflict between Poland and Belarus, which is trying to send refugees into Europe through Poland’s border, is part of that effort, he said.
“They want to make the situation inside the country more and more dangerous and hard and make a situation where we have to change the government,” said Budanov. “If they can’t do that, than military troops will do their job.”
Budanov said U.S. and Ukraine intelligence assessments about the timing of a Russian attack are very similar.
“Our evaluations are almost the same as our American colleagues,” he said.
The Russian embassy did not respond to a request for comment Saturday. The Pentagon on Saturday declined to comment on Budanov’s assessments about the timing and nature of any potential Russian attack, instead pointing to comments made Wednesday and Thursday by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The U.S. continues to see “troubling behavior from Russia,” Austin told reporters Wednesday.
“We are not sure exactly what Mr. Putin is up to,” he said. “But these movements certainly have our attention. And I would urge Russia to be more transparent about what they are up to take steps to live up to the Minsk agreements.
“Our support for Ukraine sovereignty territorial integrity remains unwavering.”
After meeting with Reznikov on Thursday, Austin said the U.S. will “continue to advance our shared priority to counter Russian aggression and to deepen our cooperation in such areas as Black Sea security, cyber defense and intelligence sharing.”
Budanov said that ideally, the U.S. would help deter any Russian incursion, through additional military aid and increased diplomatic and economic pressure, including more sanctions against Russia and the seizure and blocking of Russian banking accounts.
Also, in addition to U.S. aid already promised and delivered, including Mark VI patrol boats, Javelin anti-armor systems and AN/TPQ-53 light counter-fire radar systems, Ukraine seeks additional air, missile and drone defense systems and electronic jamming devices, Budonov said. Patriot missile batteries and counter rocket, artillery and mortar systems are on Ukraine’s wish list.
The AN/TPQ-53 systems were used to great effect, Ukraine military officials have previously told Military Times. Budanov said the Javenlin systems have also been used against Russian forces. Those, along with Turkish-manufactured drones, used against Russian-aligned separatist artillery troops, have a significant psychological deterrent value, said Budanov, making Russians think twice about attacking.
Still, he said, Ukraine needs more help from America.
“I think it’s not enough for us right now,” he said of current and promised U.S. aid to Ukraine. “We need more. No countries except Ukraine have open war with Russia. And we have for seven years. That’s why we’re sure the U.S should give us everything we didn’t get before. And right now. It’s the right time for this. Because after it could be very late.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.