In an appearance on Fox News this morning, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) reported that in addition to massing tens of thousands of troops on the eastern border of Ukraine, Russia is building up its military forces in the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia. Rogers suggested that Russian president Vladimir Putin is considering an invasion of both Georgia and Armenia, as part of an effort to create an overland link between Russia and Iran.
“They are moving some of their most advanced equipment into South Ossetia,” said Rogers. “There is no reason to do that. The Georgian army really poses no threat. That’s certainly concerning.”
Rogers later added, “I would ask why is he moving the equipment that he is into South Ossetia up in Georgia, which makes really makes no sense other than they are contemplating maybe using those armor columns to drive through Georgia down to Armenia to create a land bridge to Iran.”
Rogers, who this week announced that he would not seek reelection in November, recently returned from a trip to Georgia and Ukraine. In Georgia, according to Intelligence Committee staff, he personally saw camps being set up by the Russian military. Rogers also met with the countries’ defense ministers and intelligence officials.
It would not be surprising for Russia to seek closer ties with Iran, nor for Putin to seek a direct trade route between the two nations. Both are, to different degrees, suffering under international sanctions – sanctions that may soon tighten on Russia as a result of its invasion of the Crimean peninsula.
The news of a Russian build-up in South Ossetia comes as tens of thousands of Russian combat troops remain massed on the eastern border of Ukraine.
Putin telephoned president Obama over the weekend, and the two had a discussion that the White House characterized as Russia seeking to deescalate the situation in Ukraine through diplomatic means. Russian officials described the conversation as Putin alleging further violations of the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
Putin has claimed that the Russian invasion and speedy annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula was justified because it was done to protect ethnic Russians in that region.
The upshot of the call was that Secretary John Kerry made an unscheduled trip to Paris to meet with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
While some speculated that Putin made the call as part of an effort to find a “way out” of the tense situation in the Ukraine, Rogers summarily dismissed that possibility.
“He is absolutely not looking for a way out,” Rogers said.
Asked about the troop build-up on the Ukrainian border, Rogers said, “We see tens of thousands and it is not just the number of troops, it’s the kind of troops and the kinds of configuration. What units are on that border and what could they accomplish. They have everything they need already I believe on that eastern border to go into Ukraine if they decide they want to do it.”
According to Rogers, intelligence suggests that Putin’s primary goal in Ukraine is most likely to create a “land bridge” from Crimea to the breakaway Transinistria region of Moldova, to the west, which has been seeking a connection to the Russian Federation similar to the annexation of Crimea.
By taking control of the southern part of Ukraine, Rogers said, Putin would secure a source of fresh water for the Crimean peninsula as well as an overland connection to Transinistria.
Asked if there is reason to believe that Russia would move into eastern Ukraine as well, Rogers did not discount the possibility, saying that Russia currently has special forces teams and intelligence agenst working to foment unrest in the eastern Ukraine, which Russia could eventually use as a pretext for invasion.
Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agreed that Putin looks poised to enter Ukraine.
“There are 40-plus thousand troops. They are staged in various areas. To people who watch this, it looks like an invasion force,” she said. “Putin has said it’s an exercise. Leaves a question mark.”
Speaking on ABC’s This Week, Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kisliyak dismissed the possibility that Russia would ever retreat from Crimea, asserting that it is now part of Russia.
“We are now in the territory of the Russian Federation,” he said. “There was an expressed will of the people of Crimea to be part of the Russian Federation.”
However, asked if Russia was planning to invade the rest of Ukraine, he said, “We have no intent and no interest in crossing the border. We have our forces conducting exercises in the territory of the Russian Federation.”
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