UK: Russia Will ‘Likely Struggle’ to Staff, Equip Planned Force Expansion

The British Defense Ministry said Sunday that Russia “highly likely assesses that an enhanced conventional military threat will endure for many years beyond the current Ukraine war.” In the intelligence update posted on Twitter Sunday, the ministry said, Russia would “highly likely struggle to staff and equip the planned expansion.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced last week that it intends to increase its armed forces staffing to 1.5 million people.

Russia also announced plans to reestablish Moscow and Leningrad military districts. The U.K. Defense Ministry said that move represents “a partial return to the Soviet era organization of forces in Western Russia.”

Russia also has plans to install a new army corps in Karelia, near the Finnish border.

Twitter lit up Saturday with European officials decrying Germany’s indecision about sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics called on Germany to “provide Leopard tanks to Ukraine now.”

“This is needed to stop Russian aggression, help Ukraine and restore peace in Europe quickly. Germany as the leading European power has special responsibility in this regard,” he asserted, speaking for himself and Lithuanian and Estonian foreign ministers.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas called for “many more” weapons to be sent to Ukraine and faster. Regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine she said, “We’re in it for the long haul.”

Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Ray urged “action now.”

“Ukrainian blood is shed for real,” he wrote. “This is the price of hesitation over Leopard deliveries.”

Tank training

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on Saturday expressed his frustration with the pace of the military support the country’s allies are providing.

“You’ll help Ukraine with the necessary weapons anyway and realize that there is no other option to end the war except the defeat of Russia,” Podolyak posted on Twitter. “But today’s indecision is killing more of our people. Every day of delay is the death of Ukrainians. Think faster.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops will start training to use Leopard 2 battle tanks on Polish soil, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told VOA’s Ukrainian Service on Friday. Reznikov described the development as a breakthrough.

“Countries that already have Leopard tanks can begin training missions for our tank crews. We will start with that, and we will go from there. I hope Germany will follow their process, conduct their internal consultations, and will arrive at the decision to transfer tanks. I am optimistic regarding this because the first step has been made. We will start training programs for our tank crews on Leopards 2,” Reznikov said.

“All the previously announced [military aid] packages have been confirmed. In addition, some new packages were discussed behind closed doors, but I am not at liberty to announce them just yet. This is inspiring. I am very satisfied,” he added.

In contrast, however, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a warning about the possible consequences of the weapons packages that countries have pledged to supply to Ukraine.

Vyacheslave Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, posted on the messaging app Telegram: “If Washington and NATO countries supply weapons that will be used to strike civilian cities and attempt to seize our territories, as they threaten, this will lead to retaliatory measures using more powerful weapons.”

“Arguments that the nuclear powers have not previously used weapons of mass destruction in local conflicts are untenable,” Volodin said.  “Because these states did not face a situation where there was a threat to the security of their citizens and the territorial integrity of the country.”

Return of bodies

Earlier Saturday, the Wagner Group, the private Russian paramilitary group, announced through its RIA FAN website that it plans to send the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed during fighting in the captured town of Soledar to Ukraine-held territory.

Wagner said on Jan. 11 it had captured Soledar, and Russian-installed authorities in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region said earlier this week they were in control of the salt-mining town, where intense fighting had taken place.

The RIA FAN website, part of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s media holdings, quoted a Wagner commander as saying the mercenary company would send the bodies from Soledar to Ukrainian-held territory in four or five convoys totaling about 20 trucks.

Saturday’s report did not say how many bodies would be returned to Ukrainian authorities but claimed Ukraine’s forces had suffered heavy losses in Soledar.

It said Prigozhin had made clear that soldiers’ bodies should be returned to Ukraine in a “dignified” way but did not provide further details.

In a separate letter addressed to White House national security spokesperson John Kirby, Prigozhin’s press service read: “Dear Mr. Kirby, could you please clarify what crime was committed by PMC Wagner?”

The question was in response to Washington’s decision to impose new sanctions on the military group.

Kirby called Wagner “a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses.”

Last month, the White House said Wagner had taken delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called the report groundless and Prigozhin at the time denied taking such a delivery, calling the report “gossip and speculation.”

The European Union imposed its own sanctions in December 2021 on Wagner, which has been active in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mozambique and Mali, as well as Ukraine.

VOA’s Ruslan Petrychka contributed to this story.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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