Russia has moved almost 100 per cent of the forces it positioned near Ukraine into the country, as its military continues to struggle in the campaign to seize control of Kyiv, the Pentagon said on Monday.
It said Moscow had deployed almost all of the 127 battalions that had been pre-positioned in Russia, Crimea and Belarus.
John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said most of the new forces had entered from the north, suggesting they would bolster Russian troops facing strong Ukrainian resistance in their advance on Kyiv. He added that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to recruit foreigners, including from Syria, for his campaign.
“I can’t begin to speculate why he would find it necessary to seek help from foreign fighters,” Kirby said.
He said Russia was also increasingly employing “long-range fires” – artillery, rockets and missiles – to attack cities as its forces continued to face obstacles, particularly in the north and north-east of Ukraine.
“In the south, they continue to have some progress, but up in the north and north-east. . . they continue to get frustrated, they continue to rely now more on what we would call long-range fires, ”Kirby said.
A US defense official said Russia had launched more than 625 missiles since the start of the invasion – suggesting an acceleration from Saturday compared to the 20 launches a day at the end of last week.
Kirby said Russia had not achieved air superiority over Ukraine and that the airspace remained contested. He added that the “vast majority” of Ukraine’s military aircraft remained operational. He said Russia continued to conduct air missions in support of the invasion but there were signs that its campaign was disjointed.
“We aren’t seeing the level of integration between air and ground operations that you would expect,” he said.
Samuel Charap, a Russia and Ukraine expert at The Rand Corporation, said he was “mystified” that Russia had not used more of its combat aircraft in the conflict, which explained why it had not been very successful in destroying Ukraine’s air defenses.
“One plausible explanation is the concern that they might end up having to fight a war with NATO. You don’t want to commit your premier assets [in that case]”He said.
The ground invasion has continued to face problems, particularly in the north. Although a large convoy is stalled north of Kyiv, Russian troops continued to battle towards the capital from the east threatening a pincer movement that seeks to encircle and eventually take the city. But western officials said supplies of weapons continued to get through to Ukrainian forces in big cities even as Russian forces launched fierce bombardments on urban centers.
“It’s been extraordinary, the amount of arms supplies that are getting into Ukraine even under the most difficult of circumstances,” Wendy Sherman, US deputy secretary of state, said in Madrid on Monday.
The Institute for the Study of War, a US think-tank, estimated in a new report that an assault on Kyiv could come within 24 to 96 hours.
Moscow has offered to suspend attacks on Kharkiv and Sumy to the east of the capital and create corridors for evacuees. But most of the routes lead to Russia or Belarus, which experts said was a cynical ploy that echoed similar tactics by Putin in Syria.
“Putin will always offer civilian evacuation, but his overall approach, as it was in Syria, will be ‘starve or submit,'” said Hugo Slim, a senior fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University.
“He offers evacuation routes to Belarus and Russia as he wants them to feel even more desperate about their options so that they feel increasingly hopeless and lose the will to resist,” Slim said.
While Moscow has deployed its pre-positioned combat forces, experts said it may still soon seek to pause, reorganize and ship in reinforcements from Russia – although they would take time to arrive.
Michael Kofman, a Russia expert at CNA, a US think-tank, said the Russian military had a tradition of doing badly at the start of a conflict but then making adjustments after some attrition.
“They will need after some weeks, say three or four. . . a ceasefire to reorganize their supplies – but wars often go on after ceasefires, ”Kofman told War on the Rocks in a podcast. “I am already seeing more forces being mobilized to the border.”