Russia has already assembled 70 percent of the forces it would need to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the latest government assessment said late Friday amid spiraling tensions in the region.
An invasion would likely cause significant casualties, killing or wounding up to 50,000 civilians within weeks, according to the official, who discussed the internal assessment on condition they not be identified.
Were President Vladimir Putin to decide on this course of action, capital Kyiv would likely be captured in the early days of the invasion, possibly within the first 48 hours, the official said describing the assessment.
It was unclear how the government arrived at these estimates and NBC News has not seen supporting documents.
Defense Department officials were not immediately available for comment on the report. Russian officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Up to 5 million people could become refugees were invasion to happen and between 5,000 and 25,000 Ukrainian troops would likely be killed or wounded, the assessment concluded, according to the source.
Moscow denies it is planning to attack the former Soviet republic, but in a series of bold security demands, the Kremlin has called on NATO to deny membership to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries. It has also called on the military alliance to roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe, claiming NATO expansion poses a serious threat to Russia.
The U.S. assessment showed that 83 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) made of up to 1,000 troops, each armed with artillery and mortars, are surrounding Ukraine, up from 60 two weeks ago, the source said. An additional 14 are on their way to join them from other parts of the country, the source said citing the assessment.
The assessment concluded around 120 would be optimal to launch a full-scale invasion, according to the official. Fighter jets, missile systems, helicopters, ships, and submarines are also in place, they added.
The rate of troops and equipment arriving at the border means Russia may be at full capacity to invade by Feb. 15, when the ground at the border is expected to be optimally frozen for tracked vehicle movement through to the end of March, the source said, citing the assessment.
They added that it also repeated warnings Russia planned “false flags operations” to justify conflict, including disinformation campaigns, sabotaging infrastructure, or sparking protests or unrest.
Moscow has also moved strategic exercises using air, sea, and land-based weapons capable of launching nuclear weapons from the fall to later this month, the U.S. official said, describing the assessment.
Officials expect Russia to test missiles with various ranges including Intercontinental ballistic missiles without nuclear warheads, they said.
Putin has not made a final decision on an invasion and may not have ruled out the possibility of more limited options, although a diplomatic solution appears to remain possible, they said.
While the intelligence indicates that Russia continues to be ready for a possible invasion, one is not inevitable, said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
“Russia is continuing the long drawn-out process of steadily amassing the necessary capabilities for a full-scale new assault on Ukraine,” he told NBC News via email.
“That doesn’t make a new invasion inevitable — President Putin has described this as a means of putting pressure on the West that needs to be strung out as long as possible.”
“But there are fewer and fewer doubts that Russia could mount a major escalation if it wished to, and Ukraine and its Western partners have no option but to prepare accordingly,” he added.
Putin said Tuesday that the U.S. and NATO had ignored his country’s demands and accused them of using Ukraine as “a tool” in its efforts to contain Russia and lure it into war.
Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations dismissed the reports.
“Madness and scaremongering continues,” he wrote in a tweet. “What if we would say that the US could seize London in a week and cause 300K civilian deaths? All this is based on the intelligence sources that we won’t disclose.”
Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Beijing Winter Olympics on Friday and received strong support from his counterpart.
“In 2014, Russia seized and annexed Crimea and started its war in eastern Ukraine without consulting China. This time is very different. Intense diplomacy between the two countries has left Russia as confident as possible that its next move will not incur Chinese disapproval,” Giles said.
Russia and Belarus, a close ally of Russia’s on Ukraine’s northern border, have said they will hold joint exercises on Feb. 10-20.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last week called the Russian maneuvers in Belarus the biggest Russian deployment in the area since the Cold War and added that nuclear-capable Iskander missiles were a part of it.
On Saturday, Russia said it had sent a pair of long-range nuclear-capable bombers on patrol over Belarus. The two Tu-22M3 bombers practiced interacting with the Belarusian air force and air defense during a four-hour mission, the Russian Defense Ministry said.