Russia Is Recruiting Mercenaries and Syrians to Ukraine, Western Officials Say

WASHINGTON — As Russian troops withdraw from northern Ukraine and focus operations in the east and south of the country, the Kremlin is struggling to muster enough combat-ready reinforcements to carry out a new phase of the war, according to US and Western military and intelligence officials. .

Moscow initially sent 75 percent of its main ground combat forces to the war in February, Pentagon officials said. But much of that army of more than 150,000 soldiers is now a depleted force, after suffering logistical problems, declining morale and devastating casualties inflicted by tougher-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, military and intelligence officials say.

There are relatively few fresh Russian troops to fill the gap. Russia withdrew forces, up to 40,000 troops, that it had deployed around Kyiv and Chernihiv, two cities in the north, to rearm and resupply in Russia and neighboring Belarus before repositioning them likely in eastern Ukraine in the coming weeks, the US said. US officials say.

The Kremlin is also sending east a mix of Russian mercenaries, Syrian fighters, new recruits and regular Russian Army troops from Georgia and Russia’s Far East.

Whether this weakened but still highly lethal Russian force can overcome its mistakes from the first six weeks of fighting and achieve a more limited set of war goals in a smaller swath of the country remains an open question, senior US officials and analysts said.

“Russia still has forces available to outnumber those in Ukraine, and Russia is now concentrating its military power on fewer lines of attack, but this does not mean that Russia will be successful in the east,” Jake Sullivan, a senior adviser to Ukraine, said Monday. national security of President Biden. .

“It is very possible that the next stage of this conflict will drag on,” Sullivan said. He added that Russia would likely send “tens of thousands of troops to the front line in eastern Ukraine” and continue to fire rockets, missiles and mortars at Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Lviv and other cities.

American officials have based their assessments on satellite imagery, electronic intercepts, Ukrainian battlefield reports and other information, and those intelligence estimates have been backed up by independent analysts examining commercially available information.

Previous US intelligence assessments of the Russian government’s intent to attack Ukraine have proven accurate, though some lawmakers said spy agencies overestimated the Russian military’s ability to advance quickly.

When the invasion failed, US and European officials highlighted the Russian military’s mistakes and logistical problems, while warning not to underestimate Moscow’s ability to regroup.

The Ukrainian army has managed to retake territory around Kyiv and Chernihiv, attacking the Russians as they retreat; he thwarted a ground attack on Odessa in the south and held on to Mariupol, the battered and besieged city on the Black Sea. Ukraine is now receiving T-72 main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons, as well as Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, from the West.

In anticipation of this next major phase of the war in the east, the Pentagon announced Tuesday night that it would send $100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles, roughly several hundred missiles from Pentagon stockpiles, to Ukraine, where the weapon has been very effective in destroying Russian tanks and other armored vehicles.

US and European officials believe the Russian military’s shift in focus is aimed at correcting some of the mistakes that have led to its failure to defeat a Ukrainian military that is much stronger and smarter than Moscow initially assessed. .

But officials said it remained to be seen how effective Russia would be in building its forces to renew its attack. And there are early signs that withdrawing Russian troops and mercenaries from Georgia, Syria and Libya could complicate the Kremlin’s priorities in those countries.

Some officials say Russia will try to come in with more heavy artillery. By concentrating its forces in a smaller geographic area and moving them closer to supply routes into Russia, Western intelligence officials said, Russia hopes to avoid the logistical problems its troops suffered in their failed attack on kyiv.

Other European intelligence officials predicted that it would take a week or two for Russian forces to regroup and refocus before they could launch an attack in eastern Ukraine. Western officials said Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin was desperate for some kind of victory by May 9, when Russia traditionally celebrates the end of World War II with a grand Victory Day parade in Red Square.

“What we are seeing now is that the Kremlin is trying to achieve some kind of success on the ground to pretend that there is a victory for their national audience by May 9,” said Mikk Marran, director general of Estonian Foreign Intelligence. . Service.

Putin would like to consolidate control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine and establish a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula by early May, a senior Western intelligence official has said.

Russia has already moved air assets east in preparation for the new attack on the Ukrainian military heartland, and has increased aerial bombardment in that area in recent days, a European diplomat and other officials said.

“It’s a particularly dangerous scenario for Ukrainians right now, at least on paper,” said Alexander S. Vindman, a Ukraine expert who became the star witness in President Donald J. Trump’s first impeachment trial. “Actually, the Russians have not performed very well. Whether they could actually use their armor, infantry, artillery, and air power in a concerted way to destroy larger Ukrainian formations remains to be seen.”

Russian troops have been fighting in groups of a few hundred soldiers, rather than the larger and more effective formations of thousands of soldiers that were used in the past.

“We haven’t seen any indication that they have the ability to adapt,” said Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and retired CIA officer.

The number of Russian losses in the war is unknown so far, although Western intelligence agencies estimate between 7,000 and 10,000 dead and between 20,000 and 30,000 wounded. Thousands more have been captured or are missing in action.

The Russian military, Western and European officials said, has learned at least one important lesson from its failures: the need to concentrate forces, rather than disperse them.

But Moscow is trying to find additional forces, according to intelligence officials.

Russia’s best forces, its two airborne divisions and the First Guards Tank army, have suffered significant casualties and an erosion of combat power, and the army has scoured its army for reinforcements.

Britain’s Defense Ministry and the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that analyzes the Ukraine war, reported Tuesday that Russian troops withdrawing from kyiv and Chernihiv would not be in a position to redeploy any time soon.

“The Russians don’t have the ability to rebuild their destroyed vehicles and weapons systems because of foreign components, which they can no longer get,” said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, a former commander of US special operations forces. in Europe who has been involved in Ukrainian defense matters since 2016.

Russian forces arriving from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway states that broke away from Georgia during the 1990s and then expanded in 2008, have been carrying out peacekeeping duties and are not combat ready, he said. General Review.

Russia’s trouble finding additional troops is largely why it has invited Syrian fighters, Chechen fighters and Russian mercenaries to serve as reinforcements. But these additional forces number in the hundreds, not thousands, European intelligence officials said.

The Chechen force, said one of the European intelligence officials, is “clearly used to spread fear.” Chechen units are no better fighters and have suffered heavy losses. But they have been used in urban combat situations and for “the dirtiest kind of work,” the official said.

Russian mercenaries with combat experience in Syria and Libya are preparing to take an increasingly active role in a phase of the war that Moscow now says is its top priority: fighting in the country’s east.

The number of mercenaries deployed to Ukraine from the Wagner Group, a private military force linked to Putin, is expected to more than triple to at least 1,000 since the first days of the invasion, a senior US official has said.

Wagner is also moving artillery, air defenses and radars that he had used in Libya to Ukraine, the official said.

Moving mercenaries “will be counterproductive because these are units that cannot be incorporated into the regular army, and we know that they are brutal human rights violators who will only turn Ukrainian and world public opinion even more against Russia,” said Evelyn N. Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration.

Hundreds of Syrian fighters could also head to Ukraine, effectively returning a favor to Moscow for helping President Bashar al-Assad crush rebels in an 11-year civil war.

A contingent of at least 300 Syrian soldiers has already arrived in Russia for regular training, but it was unclear if or when they would be sent to Ukraine, officials said.

“They are bringing in fighters known for their brutality in hopes of breaking Ukraine’s will to fight,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. But, she added, any military gains there for Russia will depend on the foreign fighters’ willingness to fight.

“One of the difficult things about putting together a coalition of disparate interests is that it can be difficult to turn them into an effective fighting force,” he said.

Finally, Putin recently signed a decree calling up 134,000 conscripts. It will take months to train the recruits, although Moscow could choose to bring them directly to the front lines with little or no instruction, officials said.

“Russia is short on troops and is looking to get manpower wherever it can,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “They are not well placed for a prolonged war against Ukraine. ”

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