U.S. intelligence has reportedly revealed that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, while Moscow on Sunday extended its military exercises in Belarus along Ukraine’s northern border.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told ABC’s “This Week” that he still holds out hope for a diplomatic solution but thinks a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent and that Moscow’s military has passed the point of muscle-flexing and intimidation.
“I don’t believe it’s a bluff. I think he’s assembled the kinds of things that you would need to conduct a successful invasion,” Mr. Austin said.
CBS reported Sunday that “Russian troops have actually received orders now to proceed with the invasion.”
Not only are Russian forces nearing the border “but the commanders on the ground are making specific plans for how they would maneuver in their sector of the battlefield,” CBS News reporter David Martin said on “Face the Nation.” “They are doing everything that American commanders would do once they got the order to proceed.”
Belarusian defense officials announced that military exercises involving almost 30,000 Russian troops in their country will continue.
“The 30,000 Russian forces that were supposed to end this weekend will now continue because of tensions in eastern Ukraine, tensions created by Russia and the separatist forces it backs there,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on “Face the Nation.”
Russia also held nuclear weapons drills Saturday and has been conducting naval war games in the Black Sea.
Russian-backed separatist forces in the Donbass region in Ukraine’s east were responsible for shelling in recent days that left two Ukrainian soldiers dead and several others wounded, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Saturday that he and Mr. Putin should meet in person to try to resolve the crisis. On Sunday, he appealed on Twitter for a cease-fire under the Trilateral Contact Group of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“We stand for intensifying the peace process. We support the immediate convening of the TCG and the immediate introduction of a regime of silence,” he wrote in both English and Ukrainian.
Russia has repeatedly denied plans to invade as Western “hysteria,” but the Kremlin did not respond directly to Mr. Zelenskyy’s offer to meet.
French President Emmanuel Macron attempted Sunday to broker a temporary cease-fire during a telephone conversation with Mr. Putin.
The Russian leader blamed Ukraine for instigating the crisis and NATO — especially the United States — for sending modern weapons and ammunition to Kyiv.
During their phone conversation, Mr. Macron and Mr. Putin agreed on the need to favor a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
France said “intense diplomatic work” will be carried out in the coming days and weeks to find a peaceful resolution.
“In order to carry out this work under serious conditions, the two Heads of State made firm commitments to carry out all useful actions to avoid escalation, reduce risks, and preserve peace,” French government officials said.
“Tensions in the Donbass are being fueled by the United States and other NATO countries, which are pumping weapons into Ukraine and sending military instructors there,” according to the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. “Moscow has repeatedly called for a halt in the supply of weapons, as this could provoke Kyiv into military adventures.”
“If they were redeploying to garrison, we wouldn’t be seeing the kind of things in terms not only combat power but also logistical support, medical support [and] combat aviation,” he said.
“We see a lot of tanks and armored vehicles there. We see a lot of artillery. We see rocket forces,” Mr. Austin said.
U.S. military intelligence has been burned in the past — most notoriously about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction — but Mr. Austin said he is confident with the intelligence U.S. officials have gathered.
“I can tell you, as someone who has planned some military exercises in my life, you don’t usually stockpile blood for an exercise,” Mr. Cotton, who served two combat tours in Iraq as an Army officer, said on “Sunday Morning Futures” on Fox News Channel.
Mr. Blinken said he didn’t want to go into detail because Russia would use the information to mitigate the sanctions.
“I recognize President Zelenskyy is in a very difficult position as the leader of a country that is under siege by Russia,” Mr. Blinken said. “We are doing everything we can to both help Ukraine defend itself and to make clear what will happen to Russia if it undertakes this aggression.”
Mr. Cotton echoed Mr. Zelenskyy’s calls for imposing sanctions on Russia now rather than waiting until after an attack.
“Why are they not at least announcing the kind of sanctions they will impose — the kind of sanctions I have been calling for, for months, as the only possible deterrent to Vladimir Putin?” Mr. Cotton asked rhetorically. “It looks [Mr. Biden] is simply going to wait until Russia decides to go for the jugular in Ukraine.”