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Moscow says separatist allies requested its help, and the U.S. says a Russian attack on Ukraine could be imminent.


WASHINGTON — In its most dire assessment yet, the Pentagon said on Wednesday that 80 percent of the 190,000 Russian troops and separatist forces in or near Ukraine are now in combat-ready positions, and that a full-scale military assault is most likely imminent.

“They are ready to go,” John F. Kirby, the top Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.

“They could attack at any time,” he added, “with a significant military force.”

Late Wednesday night, the Kremlin said that separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine had requested Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s “help in repelling the aggression of the armed forces and formations of Ukraine,” though Ukrainian officials say there has been no such aggression, and none is planned. The Kremlin did not immediately say how Mr. Putin would respond.

The Russian government and state-controlled media have repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that Ukraine is carrying out a “genocide” against Russian speakers and poses a threat to the region controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

American and European security officials have warned repeatedly that Putin’s government in Moscow is planning a “false flag” operation, an invented attack by Ukraine to justify a Russian offensive.

Late Wednesday night — early Thursday in Russia — Russian authorities closed the airspace around its borders with Ukraine to commercial traffic.

A Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe Russian military operations in broad terms, said that all the forces the United States expected Moscow to assemble in the Ukraine crisis are now in place, positioned 3 to 30 miles from the Ukrainian border, if not already in the country’s contested east.

The official said it is still up to Mr. Putin to give the final order to launch an attack.

U.S., NATO and European Union officials said on Tuesday that Russian forces had started rolling into the regions of eastern Ukraine controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists, which Mr. Putin said he was recognizing as the independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. President Biden called the move the “beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

Among the military options available to Mr. Putin are an offensive into areas still under Ukrainian control that are claimed by the separatists, or a much broader, nationwide attack on Ukraine, which would trigger the largest war in Europe since World War II.

Pentagon officials say Russian forces have been preparing for months for such a large-scale assault, and are now in position to carry it out. That attack would probably include missile salvos, airstrikes, special forces operations, an amphibious assault and ground troops, and could begin at any time, the official said.

The Defense Department echoed Mr. Biden’s assessment that Russia had begun an invasion of Ukraine in the separatist-controlled territories, but did not offer details on the precise numbers or locations of the troops in the separatist-controlled areas.

Russian state media published letters to Mr. Putin from the separatist leaders that cited the “friendship, cooperation and mutual support” treaties that they had signed with him on Monday. Both letters were dated Feb. 22.

“Kyiv is currently continuing to build up its military presence on the contact line while receiving extensive support, including military support, from the United States of America and other western countries,” wrote one of the leaders, Leonid Pasechnik of the Luhansk group. “In defiance of its international obligations, the regime in Kyiv is focused on a military solution to its conflict with the Luhansk People’s Republic.”

Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Moscow.

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