Russia is sending mercenaries and Syrians to Ukraine, Western officials say

WASHINGTON — As Russian forces withdraw from northern Ukraine and focus on the east and south of the country, the Kremlin has enough battle-ready reinforcements to conduct a new phase of the war, according to U.S. and other Western military and intelligence officials. Struggling to scrape together. ,

Pentagon officials said Moscow initially sent 75% of its main ground combat forces into battle in February. But military and intelligence officials say the force of more than 150,000 troops is now an expendable force, grappling with logistics problems, sagging morale and inflicting devastating casualties from Ukraine’s stiff resistance.

There are relatively few new Russian troops to fill the breach. Russia has withdrawn forces – as many as 40,000 soldiers – around the two cities of Kyiv and Chernihiv in the north, to redeploy to Russia and neighboring Belarus, and to re-supply them in eastern Ukraine over the next few weeks. Before being resettled, America had withdrawn. say officials.

The Kremlin is also a mix of Russian mercenaries in the east, Syrian fighters, freshmen, and regular Russian army troops from Georgia and eastern Russia.

Senior US officials and analysts said whether this weak but still very lethal Russian army could overcome its blunders of the first six weeks of the war and accomplish a narrow goal of war in a small part of the country, This is an open question.

Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to President Joe Biden, said on Monday, “Russia still has troops available to overtake Ukraine, and Russia is now focusing its military power on fewer lines of attack, but that means It is not that Russia will succeed in the East.” ,

“The next phase of this conflict may be very long,” Sullivan said. He said Russia would likely send “thousands of troops to the front lines in the east of Ukraine” and would continue to rain rockets, missiles and mortars into Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Lviv and other cities.

US officials based their assessments on satellite imagery, electronic intercepts, Ukrainian battlefield reports and other information, and those intelligence estimates are supported by independent analysts examining commercially available information.

US intelligence assessments of the Russian government’s intention to attack Ukraine first proved accurate, although some lawmakers said spy agencies underestimated the Russian military’s ability to move quickly.

As the offensive faltered, American and European officials have highlighted the Russian military’s errors and military problems, though they cautioned that Moscow’s ability to regroup should not be underestimated.

Ukrainian forces have managed to retake Kyiv and the area around Chernihiv, attacking the Russians as they retreat; To the south a ground attack against Odessa was thwarted and organized at the battered and besieged city of Mariupol on the Black Sea. Ukraine is now receiving from the West T-72 battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons – in addition to the Javelin antitank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

Anticipating this next major phase of the war, the Pentagon announced late Tuesday that it was sending $100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles — about several hundred missiles from Pentagon stock — to Ukraine, where weapons are abundant. has been effective. Destroying Russian tanks and other armored vehicles.

American and European officials believe that the change in focus of the Russian military is intended to correct some of the mistakes that led to the failure to overcome Ukraine’s military that is far stronger and wiser than Moscow’s. .

But officials said it remains to be seen how effective Russia will be in building up its forces to resume its attack. And there are early signs that pulling Russian troops and mercenaries from Georgia, Syria and Libya could complicate the Kremlin’s priorities in those countries.

Some officials say Russia will try to get in with more heavy artillery. Western intelligence officials said that by concentrating its forces in a smaller geographic area, and moving them closer to supply routes in Russia, Russia hopes to avoid logistical problems for its troops in their failed attack on Kyiv.

Other European intelligence officials predicted it would take one to two weeks for Russian forces to regroup and re-focus before suppressing attacks in eastern Ukraine. Western officials said Russian President Vladimir Putin was desperate for some kind of victory until May 9, when Russia traditionally celebrates the end of World War II with a large Victory Day parade in Red Square.

Estonian Director General of Foreign Intelligence Mick Maran said, “What we are seeing now is that the Kremlin is trying to get some sort of success on the ground to pretend victory for its home audience by 9 May. ” Service.

A senior Western intelligence official said Putin wants to strengthen control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, and establish a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula by early May.

A European diplomat and other officials said Russia has already moved air assets to the east in preparation for a renewed attack on the heart of the Ukrainian military, and has increased aerial bombing in that area in recent days. .

“This is now a particularly dangerous scenario for Ukrainians, at least on paper,” said Alexander Vindman, an expert in Ukraine. Became a key witness in the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. “Indeed, the Russians have not fared brilliantly. Whether they can really carry their armour, their infantry, their artillery and air power in a convincing way to destroy large Ukrainian formations remains to be seen.” remains.

Russian troops are fighting in groups of a few hundred soldiers instead of the larger and more effective formations of thousands of soldiers used in the past.

“We haven’t seen any indication that he has the ability to adapt,” said Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and retired CIA officer.

So far the number of Russian losses in the war remains unknown, although Western intelligence agencies estimate 7,000 to 10,000 killed and 20,000 to 30,000 wounded. Thousands more have been caught or are missing in action.

The Russian military, Western and European officials said, has learned at least one major lesson from its failures: the need to concentrate forces rather than disperse them.

But according to intelligence officials, Moscow is trying to find additional forces.

Russia’s best armies, its two air divisions and the 1st Guards Tank Army, have suffered significant casualties and erosion of combat power, and the army has driven its forces in search of reinforcements.

The British Defense Ministry and the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that analyzes the Ukraine war, both reported Tuesday that Russian troops withdrawing from Kyiv and Chernihiv would not be suitable for redeployment anytime soon.

“The Russians have no ability to rebuild their destroyed vehicles and weapon systems because of foreign components they can no longer find,” said Major General Michael S. Repas, former commander of the US Special Operations Forces in Europe. He has been associated with Ukraine’s defense affairs since 2016.

Repas said Russian forces arriving from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist states that broke away from Georgia during the 1990s and then expanded in 2008, are performing peacekeeping duties and are unprepared for war. Huh.

Russia’s problem with finding additional troops is largely due to why it has invited Syrian fighters, Chechen and Russian mercenaries to serve as reinforcements. But these additional forces number in the hundreds, not thousands, European intelligence officials said.

“Clearly used to sow fear,” said the Chechen force, one of the European intelligence officials. Chechen units are not better fighters and have suffered heavy losses. But they have been used in urban combat situations and for “the dirtiest kind of work”, the official said.

Russian mercenaries with combat experience in Syria and Libya are gearing up to take an increasingly active role in a phase of the war that Moscow now calls its top priority: fighting in the east of the country.

The number of mercenaries stationed in Ukraine from the Wagner Group, a private military force with ties to Putin, is expected to more than triple from the initial days of the invasion to at least 1,000, a senior US official said. US official said.

The official said Wagner is also transferring artillery, air defense and radar that he used from Libya to Ukraine.

Carrying mercenaries “would backfire because these are units that cannot be drafted into the regular army, and we know they are brutal human rights violators who will only advance Ukraine and world opinion against Russia,” Evelyn N. Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration.

Hundreds of Syrian fighters are also headed to Ukraine, effectively returning to Moscow’s side to help President Bashar Assad crush rebels in an 11-year civil war.

A team of at least 300 Syrian soldiers has arrived in Russia for training.

“They are bringing in fighters known for their brutality in hopes of sabotaging Ukrainian will,” said Corey Shek, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. But, he said, any military advantage there for Russia would depend on the willingness of foreign fighters to fight.

“One of the hard things about putting together a coalition of dissimilar interests is that it can be hard to make them an effective fighting force,” she said.

Finally, Putin recently signed a decree that called for 134,000 conscriptions. Officials said it would take months to train the recruits, although Moscow could choose to take them directly to the front lines without any instruction.

“Russians are short of troops and want to get manpower where they can,” said Michael Kaufman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “They are not well prepared for a prolonged war against Ukraine.”

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