BRUSSELS -- NATO's top commander said Wednesday that the 40,000 troops Russia has within striking distance of Ukraine are poised to attack on 12 hours' notice and could accomplish their military objectives within three to five days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that the Kremlin was beginning to withdraw troops from the border area near Ukraine.
But the NATO commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, said in an interview that so far only a single battalion -- a force of 400 to 500 troops -- is on the move, and that NATO intelligence could not say whether it was actually being withdrawn.
Gen. Breedlove said the Russian force that remains is a potent mix of warplanes, helicopter units, artillery, infantry and commandos, with field hospitals and sufficient logistics to sustain an incursion into Ukraine.
"We believe that it can move within 12 hours," he said. "Essentially, the force is ready to go. We believe it could accomplish its objective between three to five days," he said.
Gen. Breedlove said the Russian presence might be intended as a "coercive force" during the West's talks with Russia about Ukraine's future, and as Ukraine prepares for a presidential election in late May.
If the Kremlin decides to intervene militarily, Gen. Breedlove added, the force could be used to establish a land link to Crimea, the peninsula in southern Ukraine that Russia annexed last month, so it does not have to supply it by sea. The Russian force is also capable, he said, of carrying out a thrust to Odessa, moving to Transnistria, the Russian enclave in Moldova, or intervening in areas in eastern Ukraine.
"I think they have all the opportunities, and they can make whatever decision they want," the general added. "This is a very large, very well-equipped force to be called an exercise."
In January, the United States informed NATO allies that Russia had tested a ground-launched cruise missile, raising serious questions about Moscow's compliance with its arms-control obligations. U.S. officials have sought without success to resolve the issue with the Russians, and the Obama administration is reviewing whether to formally declare the test to be a violation of a 1987 treaty that bans medium-range missiles.
While making clear that he was not prejudging that review's outcome, Gen. Breedlove described the Russian missile test as a militarily significant development.
"A weapon capability that violates the INF, that is introduced into the greater European land mass, is absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with," he said, using the initials of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
"I would not judge how the alliance will choose to react, but I would say they will have to consider what to do about it. It can't go unanswered," he said.
Gen. Breedlove said he did not know whether the Russians had deployed the cruise missile, adding that this would be hard to determine since it resembles permitted short-range systems.
Discussing the Russian intervention in Crimea, the commander said Russia used a military exercise to mask its invasion preparations.
Once its intervention was underway, he said, Russian forces moved swiftly to cut telephone cables, jam communications and engage in cyberwarfare to isolate the Ukrainian military on the peninsula.
"They disconnected the Ukrainian forces in Crimea from their command-and-control," he said.