April 15, 2021
A Ukrainian serviceman walks along a trench at a position on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near Gorlivka, Donetsk region, April 14, 2021.
By Jeff Seldin | VOA News
The U.S. military commander keeping close watch on Russia’s massing of military forces in Crimea and along the border of Ukraine says there is only a “low to medium” likelihood that Moscow’s forces will invade.
Air Force General Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. European Command, shared the assessment with lawmakers Thursday during a hearing in Washington, where he warned that the Kremlin’s maneuvering remains of “great concern.”
“There is a very large ground domain force,” Wolters told members of the House Armed Services Committee, declining to share specific numbers.
“There’s also a sizable air force, and there’s a notable maritime force,” he said. “Our vigilance is high.”
The White House, the Pentagon and NATO repeatedly have demanded an explanation from Russia for the troop movements, rejecting Moscow’s insistence that it is massing forces as part of military exercises.
They also have called on Russia to deescalate, calling the buildup — the largest gathering of Russian forces since the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea — part of a “pattern of aggressive provocations.”
Testifying before lawmakers Wednesday, U.S. intelligence officials said Russia’s intent remains unclear. CIA Director Bill Burns said Moscow may just be trying to signal to Ukraine and the West that they should respect its military might, but he cautioned that the buildup has “reached the point where it also could provide the basis for a limited military incursion.”
Other top U.S. intelligence officials have described the situation as precarious.
“The Russians have positioned themselves to give themselves options,” said Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, Defense Intelligence Agency chief, testifying alongside Burns. “They could actually be going into a series of exercises starting anytime, or they could, if they chose to, perhaps do a limited objective attack.”
Still, Wolters indicated Thursday that there may be signs the threat is lessening, noting activity along the Russian supply lines “has plateaued.”
“My sense is, with the trend that I see right now, the likelihood of an occurrence will start to wane,” he said, when asked about how the situation could evolve in the next three to four weeks.
Last month, the U.S. announced a $125 million assistance package for Ukraine, including lethal defensive weapons “to help Ukraine’s forces preserve the country’s territorial integrity.”
Speaking Wednesday in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington would “look to continue” providing Kyiv with aid and defensive capabilities.