World

Russia now has 'capability' to move against Ukraine, U.S. defence secretary says

U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday the buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine's border has reached the point where Russian President Vladimir Putin now has a complete range of military options, including actions short of a full-scale invasion.

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U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday the buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine's border has reached the point where Russian President Vladimir Putin now has a complete range of military options, including actions short of a full-scale invasion.

"While we don't believe that President Putin has made a final decision to use these forces against Ukraine, he clearly now has that capability," Austin told a news conference.

In Moscow, the Kremlin said Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron that the West has failed to take Russian security concerns into account, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a radio interviewer that Russia doesn't want war but sees no room for compromise on its demands.

Austin said Putin could use any portion of his force of an estimated 100,000 troops to seize Ukrainian cities and "significant territories" or to launch "coercive acts or provocative political acts" like the recognition of breakaway territories inside Ukraine.

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He urged Putin to de-escalate the tensions, and appeared to warn Moscow against what the White House recently said was Russia's intent to paint Ukraine as the aggressor using a "false-flag operation" to justify an attack.

"We remain focused on Russian disinformation, including the potential creation of pretext for further invasion or strikes on Donbas," said Austin, referring to the predominantly Russian-speaking part of Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian military since 2014.

"This is straight out of the Russian playbook. They're not fooling us."

Biden asked about U.S. troops

Austin spoke alongside army Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in what were their first extensive public comments about the crisis, marking a subtle shift in the Biden administration's approach to public communications about the escalating situation. While both have consulted regularly with their NATO and Ukrainian counterparts, the public discourse has focused on the diplomatic efforts.

Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking to the media in Moscow on Wednesday, says the response the U.S. and NATO gave to Russia leaves little chance of reaching agreement. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/The Associated Press)

The U.S. has put 8,500 troops on higher alert for potential deployment to support and reassure NATO allies, and Austin and Milley said Friday that no U.S. forces have yet been deployed or moved around Europe.

U.S. President Joe Biden, however, signaled a possible move soon. Returning to Washington after a trip Friday to Pennsylvania, Biden was asked if he'd decided when he would move U.S. troops to eastern Europe.

"I'll be moving U.S. troops to eastern Europe and the NATO countries in the near term. Not a lot," Biden said. Earlier this week Biden said he might move them in the nearer term, "just because it takes time."

A Ukrainian soldier takes part in an exercise involving the use of anti-tank missiles at the Yavoriv military training ground, close to Lviv, in western Ukraine, on Friday. (Pavlo Palamarchuk/The Associated Press)

Austin and Milley said the U.S. has taken into account the risk that any troop movements could inflame the situation, but stressed the need for the U.S. to reassure its allies. Moving large units with heavy equipment and weapons often requires more time due to travel and logistical challenges.

Milley painted a grim picture of Russian military capabilities around Ukraine, saying there are not only ground troops and naval and air forces but also cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as special operations forces. He said the buildup is the largest he's seen in recent memory, and he urged Putin to choose a diplomatic path over conflict.

"If Russia chooses to invade Ukraine, it will not be cost-free, in terms of casualties and other significant effects," Milley said. He was referring to Russian costs, while also noting that Ukraine's armed forces are more capable today than in 2014 when Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and intervened in support of pro-Russian separatists in the eastern industrial heartland.

Olga, one of the 16 residents still living in a front-line village, holds a rabbit while speaking to journalists on Friday, at her home in the Luhansk region of Eastern Ukraine. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)

Kerry Buck, a former Canadian ambassador to NATO, also says Ukraine's military capacity should not be underestimated.

"If Vladimir Putin were to decide to go into Ukraine, he would absolutely have the military upper hand, but it would be unwise, I think, to assume that Ukraine wouldn't offer a very, very healthy fight," she told CBC's Power & Politics on Friday.

Austin was asked Friday about Canada's willingness to expand its military training mission in Ukraine.

He offered his thanks to Canada and other allies "for what they continue to do, alongside us, to support Ukraine" and said the U.S. remains "in constant communication with Canada and the U.K. and everyone that's providing assistance to Ukraine at this point in time."

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Demands ignored, Russia says

Earlier Friday, the Kremlin said Putin told Macron that the West has failed to consider Russia's key conditions of halting further NATO expansion, stopping the deployment of alliance weapons near Russian borders and rolling back its forces from eastern Europe.

The U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization formally rejected those demands this week, although Washington outlined areas where discussions are possible, offering hope that there could be a way to avoid war.

Despite that, Biden warned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday that there is a "distinct possibility" that Russia could take military action against the former Soviet state in February. Russia has repeatedly denied having any such plans.

Zelensky, however, sought to play down the war fears, saying Western alarm over an imminent invasion has prompted many investors in the country's financial markets to cash out.

"We don't need this panic," he said at a news conference. "It cost Ukrainians dearly."

Putin told Macron that Moscow will study the U.S. and NATO response before deciding its next move, according to a Kremlin account of their call.

The Russian president has made no public remarks about the Western response, but Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said it leaves little chance for reaching agreement.

A Ukrainian serviceman uses a periscope to observe the front line in the Luhansk area of Eastern Ukraine on Thursday. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)

With files from CBC News

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