In a Friday briefing on the Russia-Ukraine situation, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russia's military build-up near Ukraine' border is "larger in scale and scope than we have seen in recent memory" and that there's been nothing like it since the Cold war. Austin said of Putin that he "clearly now has that capability" to invade Ukraine.
However, this contradicts Ukrainian defense leaders' own assessment. The head of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov told a foreign correspondent that "As of today, a full-scale invasion with the resources they have on our borders will be insufficient."
While standing alongside Joint Chiefs chairman Mark Milley, Secretary Austin still admitted it's as yet unclear if Putin intends to order an invasion. Milley, for his part, was blunt in terms of what a full-scale war would mean: "the civilian population [of Ukraine] will suffer immensely" if war breaks out there, he said.
Gen. Milley for the first time gave a realist Pentagon view of what war would actually mean:
"If that was unleashed on Ukraine, it would be significant, very significant, and it would result in a significant amount of casualties," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said.
"And you can imagine what that might look like in dense urban areas, along roads and so on and so forth. It would be horrific, it will be terrible."
The remarks are significant given the two top American generals have been quiet over the past week of bellicose statements and predictions coming from the White House. For example, both Jen Psaki and Antony Blinken have been using the sensational word "imminent" to describe the "Russian invasion threat". In a Thursday phone call, Ukraine's President Zelensky himself had to tell Biden to calm down the dangerous rhetoric.
The generals also took the opportunity to warn Russia, saying it too will suffer greatly duee to any aggression:
"If Russia chooses to invade Ukraine it will not be cost-free, in terms of casualties or other significant effects."
...However, they stressed, the United States was prepared to send troops to reinforce and protect NATO allies in eastern Europe that faced a potential threat from a Russian attack on Ukraine, which is not part of the Atlantic alliance.
"An attack on one NATO ally is an attack against all," Milley warned.
...Though it's hard to know exactly what's meant by this, given Ukraine is not a NATO member and does not enjoy the benefits of the Article 5 collective defense treaty.
Earlier on Friday, Zelensky in televised remarks said "we do see" the 100,000 Russian troops across the border (albeit still on Russia's own sovereign territory) - "If it happens, it will be open war. A horrible war, and we understand these things." But he also expressed hope that a diplomatic resolution remains, saying that Russia can take steps to clearly confirm it does not plan to attack Ukraine.
#Russia's military buildup near #Ukraine has expanded to include supplies of blood along with other medical materials that would allow it to treat casualties, in yet another key indicator of Moscow's military readiness, three US officials tell Reuters. https://t.co/4gzUT30Lfl— Dmitri Gorelov (@dimagorelov) January 28, 2022
Crucially the Ukrainian president also said he's ready to meet Putin "in any format" to discuss the Donbas standoff:
Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky has said that he is prepared for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in any format.
"I do wish to have such a meeting. I am not afraid of any format, bilateral (with the Russian president - TASS) or whatever. It does not matter. I am ready," he told a news conference attended by foreign mass media, telecast on the Ukraine-24 television channel.
Statements in Russian media indicate that urgent communications may be taking place on this. Such a meeting, if it materializes, would without doubt indicate that there will be no Russia-Ukraine war anytime in the near future.
As for other comments of US Defense Secretary Austin, he appears to be in agreement that there's a diplomatic way forward. "Conflict is not inevitable. There is still time and space for diplomacy," he asserted.
“We don't believe that President Putin has made a final decision to use these forces against Ukraine, but he clearly now has that capability."— Leith Bou Phadel (@leithfadel) January 28, 2022
-US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
I thought Russia was planning to invade after the Winter Olympics?
Ukraine says that fake news from the West are destroying their economy -- says Russian invasion is not imminent.— ASB News / MILITARY〽️ (@ASBMilitary) January 28, 2022
"Mr. Putin can do the right thing as well," Austin added. "There is no reason that this situation has to devolve into conflict. He can choose to de-escalate. He can order his troops away."