The most senior U.S. military officer warns Russia will end up blazing a path of death and devastation, for all sides, should it decide to resolve its differences with Ukraine by using military force.
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley issued the blunt admonishment Friday during a rare news conference at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, where both men insisted tragedy could be avoided if Moscow was willing to pull back from the brink.
“Given the type of forces that are arrayed, the ground maneuver forces, the artillery, the ballistic missiles, the air forces, all of it packaged together, if that was unleashed on Ukraine, it would be significant, very significant,” Milley told reporters.
“It would result in a significant amount of casualties. And you can imagine what that might look like in dense urban areas,” he said. “It would be horrific. It would be terrible. And it’s not necessary.”
The U.S. warning Friday comes as the standoff between Russia and Ukraine appears to have reached a tipping point.
Putin’s call with Macron
Senior U.S. defense officials cautioned that Russia had amassed sufficient firepower to launch a full-scale invasion at any time, while Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron that the West had failed to adequately address Moscow’s security concerns.
Putin, according to the Kremlin, told Macron that the most recent Western diplomatic responses did not consider Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion such as stopping the deployment of alliance weapons near Russia’s border and rolling back its forces from Eastern Europe.
Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian radio stations Friday that Russia did not want war with Ukraine but that it would protect its interests against the West if necessary.
“If it depends on Russia, then there will be no war. We don’t want wars,” Lavrov said. “But we also won’t allow our interests to be rudely trampled, to be ignored.”
Escalating tensions and rhetoric
But the U.S. defense secretary pushed back, telling Pentagon reporters Friday that no one has done anything to lead Russia to encircle Ukraine with more than 100,000 troops.
“There was no provocation that caused them to move those forces,” Austin said Friday at the Pentagon, calling out Moscow for a new wave of disinformation campaigns.
“Indeed, we’re seeing Russian state media spouting off now about alleged activities in eastern Ukraine,” he said. “This is straight out of the Russian playbook. And they’re not fooling us.”
Austin also painted Moscow’s saber-rattling as counterproductive.
“A move on Ukraine will accomplish the very thing Russia says it does not want — a NATO alliance strengthened and resolved on its western flank,” he said.
But with no sign of give from any side — U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly rejected Russia’s demands — there are growing concerns that fear or hysteria could spread, making an already fragile situation more perilous.
“We don’t need this panic,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told a news conference in Kyiv on Friday, accusing U.S. leaders of talking up the possibility of conflict.
“Are tanks driving here on our streets? No. But it feels like this (reading the media),” he said. “In my opinion, this is a mistake. Because those are signals of how the world reacts.”
Despite the disagreement over rhetoric, U.S. and European officials said they continue to hold out hope that diplomacy can prevail.
One senior U.S. administration official, talking to reporters on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss developments, said remarks like those Friday by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov are a positive sign.
“We welcome the message,” the official said. “We need to see it backed up by swift action.”
The official added that Monday’s United Nations Security Council meeting on Ukraine will be “an opportunity for Russia to explain what it is doing, and we’ve come prepared to listen.”
Ramping up military preparations
While Russia and the U.S. and its allies have spent much of the past week trading demands, both sides have also ramped up military preparations.
Russia has launched military drills involving motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers in Belarus.
Ukraine’s military held artillery and anti-aircraft drills in the country’s southern Kherson region Friday near the border with Russian-annexed Crimea.
And the U.S., which has been providing Kyiv with anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers, artillery and ammunition, said another shipment arrived Friday to help bolster Ukrainian defenses.
Also Friday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance has already bolstered its troop presence in Eastern Europe and continues to watch Russia’s military movements, including the positioning of aircraft and S-400 anti-aircraft systems in Belarus, closely.
“The aim now is to try to reduce tensions,” Stoltenberg said, speaking online from Brussels at a Washington think-tank event.
“We urge Russia, we call on Russia to engage in talks,” he said, adding that opting for the use of force will not work out well for Moscow.
“When it comes to Ukraine, I am absolutely certain that Russia understands they will have to pay a high price (for invading),” Stoltenberg said. “I am certain President Putin and Russia takes NATO very serious when it comes to our ability to protect and defend all allies.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.