US military and intelligence officials believe Russia plans to hold a major nuclear weapons exercise this month as a warning to NATO not to intervene if President Vladimir Putin decides to invade. Ukraine.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs, and Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, told lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Thursday that Putin plans to begin the exercises in mid-February, according to a congressional assistant with knowledge of the closed by briefing.
Russia generally holds its annual nuclear exercises – which involve testing intercontinental ballistic missiles of land, sea and air – in the fall. But the US believes Putin decided to hold them earlier this year as a show of force in case he ordered his army to invade Ukraine further.
The US believes that the optimum time for a Russian invasion will be from mid-February to the end of March.
Keeping the exercises to coincide with an invasion would send a powerful reminder to NATO about the strength of Moscow’s nuclear forces, which are the largest in the world. Russia has just under 4,500 nuclear warheads in its stock, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
“It would be an incredibly provocative and predictable message if they did it at the same time as an invasion of Ukraine,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a nuclear weapons policy expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
The US has not determined whether Putin has decided to invade Ukraine. But with its allies, Washington is increasingly upset about the ongoing military build-up of Russian forces around the border with Ukraine.
In the past two weeks, Russia has increased the number of battalion tactical groups – which could range from 750 to 1,000 troops – deployed in the border area from 60 to 83, according to one NATO source. Another 14 BTGs are also in transit to the border area. The US also believes Russia has deployed between 1,200 and 2,100 special operations troops in the region.
The new battalion of tactical groups and other troops deployed in the area brings the total number of Russian forces in the region to more than 100,000.
Washington estimates that Russia has deployed enough forces for a limited attack, but has deployed only 70 percent of the troops it would need for a full-scale invasion, which would include an attack on Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
U.S. military experts believe Russia has the ability to deploy enough forces for a full invasion by mid-February, which will coincide with the expected start of its nuclear exercises.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden ordered that the deployment of 2,000 US troops to Poland and Germany, in an attempt to send a signal to Putin about the strength of the NATO alliance. On Thursday, the US accused Russia of this prepare to launch an attack by Ukraine or the west, in a “false flag” operation designed to create a pretext for an invasion.
On Tuesday, Putin accused the United States of trying to “drag” Russia into armed conflict, saying it ignored Russia’s security issues and its demand for a guarantee that NATO would not allow Ukraine into the future.
The Russian leader received support from Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday when he visited Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics. In a joint statement, they said they were “against further expansion of NATO”.
A senior US official said China should have used the meeting with Putin to encourage him to de-escalate in Ukraine.
“If Russia invades Ukraine further and looks at China the other way around, it indicates that China is prepared to tolerate or tacitly support Russia’s efforts to Ukraine, even when it embarrasses Beijing, harms European security and world peace and economic endangering stability, “he said. .
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter