US commander: Russia seems set for new offensive in Ukraine

EU, Ukraine Leaders Meet as Shelling Worsens, One Ukrainian Soldier Killed


WASHINGTON (AP) - The top U.S. commander for NATO said Thursday that America needs better intelligence on the ground in Ukraine, but that it appears Russian forces have used a recent lull in fighting to reposition for another offensive.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of NATO forces in Europe, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, that the situation in Ukraine is volatile and fragile and urged Congress to bolster U.S. intelligence capabilities to better understand President Vladimir Putin's intent in the region.

"Russian military operations over the past year in Ukraine, and the region more broadly, have underscored that there are critical gaps in our collection and analysis," Breedlove said. "Some Russian military exercises have caught us by surprise and our textured feel for Russian involvement on the ground in Ukraine has been quite limited."

He said the number of Russia intelligence experts has dwindled since the Cold War and intelligence assets of all kind have been shifted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We cannot be fully certain what Russia will do next and we cannot fully grasp Putin's intent. What we can do is learn from his actions," Breedlove said. "What we do see suggests growing Russian capabilities, significant military modernization and an ambitious strategic intent."

"Russian forces used the opportunities presented by the recent lull in fighting to reset and reposition while protecting their gains," he said. "Many of their actions are consistent with preparations for another offensive."

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US commander: Russia seems set for new offensive in Ukraine
A Pro-Russian separatist fighter mans a checkpoint near the airport of Donetsk on Febuary 7, 2015. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced optimism that a plan being worked on by Moscow, Berlin and Paris could bring an end to the Ukraine conflict. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 24: Pro-Russian separatist stands near the road while pro-Russian separatists withdraw military vehicles from the front line at Donetsk Airport on February 24, 2015 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Since 9 A.M. on Tuesday DNR has already taken away 96 units of barreled artillery, jet and self-propelled artillery. (Photo by Dmitry Korotayev/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 24: Pro-Russian separatists withdraw military vehicles from the front line at Donetsk Airport on February 24, 2015 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Since 9 A.M. on Tuesday DNR has already taken away 96 units of barreled artillery, jet and self-propelled artillery. (Photo by Dmitry Korotayev/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).
A pro-Russian separatist fighter stands guard at Donetsk's Sergey Prokofiev international airport, as shelling continues between Ukrainian army forces and pro-Russian separatist fighters on February 7, 2015. Five civilians and five soldiers were killed in fighting in east Ukraine, government and rebel officials said on February 7, with Kiev accusing pro-Russian separatists of massing forces for fresh offensives. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
A Pro-Russian separatist fighter stands guard at a checkpoint near the airport of Donetsk on Febuary 7, 2015. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday voiced optimism that a plan being worked on by Moscow, Berlin and Paris could bring an end to the Ukraine conflict.AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian servicemen, members of trilateral groups of observers, walk along a street in Soledar, Donetsk region, on February 17, 2015. The European Union on February 17, 2015 called for the immediate pull-back of heavy weapons from the frontline in eastern Ukraine and voiced concern about the surge in fighting in a key flashpoint town of Debaltseve. AFP PHOTO / ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian serviceman stands on top of a KRAZ armoured vehicle close to a car of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Soledar, Donetsk region, on February 17, 2015. The European Union on February 17, 2015 called for the immediate pull-back of heavy weapons from the frontline in eastern Ukraine and voiced concern about the surge in fighting in a key flashpoint town of Debaltseve. AFP PHOTO / ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 17: Destroyed Ukrainian military armoured vehicles are seen on the nothern outskirts of Donestk on February 17, 2015 in Donetsk, Ukraine. A ceasefire agreed to by Ukraine and pro-Russian rebel forces has failed to prevent fighting in the nearby town of Debaltseve, where thousands of Ukrainian troops remain and whom rebels claim to have surrounded. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
MYRONIVSKYI, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 17: A gas pipe burns after being struck by shelling on February 17, 2015 in Myronivskyi, Ukraine. A ceasefire agreed to by Ukraine and pro-Russian rebel forces has failed to prevent fighting in the nearby town of Debaltseve, where thousands of Ukrainian troops remain and whom rebels claim to have surrounded. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: An Ukrainian soldier stands next to a destroyed military vehicle of Ukrainian army, near Debaltseve district of Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015. At least 112 attacks are carried out by pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian armys position and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. (Photo by Viktor Koshkin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: Ukrainian soldiers are seen near Debaltseve district of Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015. At least 112 attacks are carried out by pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian armys position and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. (Photo by Viktor Koshkin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: Ukrainian soldiers sit on a military vehicle of Ukrainian army near Debaltseve district of Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015. At least 112 attacks are carried out by pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian armys position and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. (Photo by Viktor Koshkin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSPYNE, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: Pro-Russian rebels attend the funerals of four rebel fighters who died on the frontline at the cemetery of Mospyne on February 16, 2015 in Mospyne, Ukraine. The rebels died on the frontline in Lohvynove near Debaltseve one day before the ceasefire . (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: An Ukrainian soldier stands next to a destroyed military vehicle of Ukrainian army, near Debaltseve district of Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015. At least 112 attacks are carried out by pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian armys position and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. (Photo by Viktor Koshkin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DONETSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: Ukrainian military vehicles of Ukrainian army are seen near Debaltseve district of Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015. At least 112 attacks are carried out by pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian armys position and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours. (Photo by Viktor Koshkin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSPYNE, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 16: Graves in the cemetery of Mospyne during the funeral of four rebel fighters killed on the frontline on February 16, 2015 in Mospyne, Ukraine. The rebels died on the frontline in Lohvynove near Debaltseve one day before the ceasefire . (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
Ukrainian reserve officers called up during the fourth wave of partial mobilization take part in military exercises in the Army Training Center near the village of Desna, Chernigiv region, on February 13, 2015. Fighting raged in Ukraine today as the clock ticked down to a ceasefire that will be a first test of Kiev and pro-Russian separatists' committment to a freshly-inked peace plan. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian reserve officers, called up during the fourth wave of partial mobilization, take part in military exercises in the Army Training Center near the village of Desna, Chernigiv region on February 13, 2015. At least 18 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine in new artillery shelling just a day after a peace deal was signed to end the 10-month conflict. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from Ukraine peace talks by announcing a new cease-fire deal, but questions remained whether Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels have agreed on its terms.
Ukrainian reserve officers called up during the fourth wave of partial mobilization take part in military exercises in the Army Training Center near the village of Desna, Chernigiv region, on February 13, 2015. Fighting raged in Ukraine today as the clock ticked down to a ceasefire that will be a first test of Kiev and pro-Russian separatists' committment to a freshly-inked peace plan. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian reserve officers called up during the fourth wave of partial mobilization take part in military exercises in the Army Training Center near the village of Desna, Chernigiv region, on February 13, 2015. Fighting raged in Ukraine today as the clock ticked down to a ceasefire that will be a first test of Kiev and pro-Russian separatists' committment to a freshly-inked peace plan. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian reserve officers, called up during the fourth wave of partial mobilization, take part in military exercises in the Army Training Center near the village of Desna, Chernigiv region on February 13, 2015. At least 18 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine in new artillery shelling just a day after a peace deal was signed to end the 10-month conflict. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
MISNK, BELARUS - FEBRUARY 11: (L to R) Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko during peace talks over Eastern Ukraine on February 11, 2015 in Minsk, Belarus. The European leaders are meeting to discuss a cease-fire in the Ukraine. (Photo by Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday emerged from marathon Ukraine peace talks by announcing a new cease-fire deal, but questions remained whether Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels have agreed on its terms. (Feb. 12)
MISNK, BELARUS - FEBRUARY 11: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (R)during peace talks over Eastern Ukraine on February 11, 2015 in Minsk, Belarus. The European leaders are meeting to discuss a cease-fire in the Ukraine. (Photo by Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).
Automatic gunfire from a Ukrainian military truck. Government forces have launched a counter offensive near the southeastern port city of Mariupol. They claim to have gained territory from Russian-backed rebels, who want greater independence with what they're calling "people's republics" in the east of the country.
KRAMATORSK, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 10: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visits Ukraine's military headquarters after shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, a town more than 30 miles away from the front lines, on February 10, 2015. At least 7 killed including 2 soldier and 26 wounded in a rocket attack on Ukraine's military headquarters, local authorities said. (Photo by Ukrainian Presidency Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Pro-Russian separatist fighter mans a checkpoint near the airport of Donetsk on Febuary 7, 2015. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced optimism that a plan being worked on by Moscow, Berlin and Paris could bring an end to the Ukraine conflict. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. and European leaders threatened new sanctions against Moscow after a missile attack blamed on pro-Russian separatists killed 30 civilians in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Niki Blasina reports.
People lay flowers and set candles on January 24, 2015, during a rally to mourn at a bus stop in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, where 13 people were killed in a trolleybus shelling on January 22. At least 27 people died on January 24, in a rocket attack on Ukraine's strategic government-held port of Mariupol after Russian-backed rebels rejected peace talks, the mayor's office said. AFP PHOTO/ALEXANDER GAYUK (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER GAYUK/AFP/Getty Images)
People light candles on Independence Square in Kiev on 24, 2015 to mourn people who died as a result of shelling in southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. At least 27 people died in a rocket attack on Ukraine's strategic government-held port of Mariupol after Russian-backed rebels rejected peace talks, the mayor's office said. AFP PHOTO/ YURY KIRNICHNY (Photo credit should read YURY KIRNICHNY/AFP/Getty Images)
People light candles on Independence Square in Kiev on 24, 2015, in mourning for people who died as a result of shelling in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. At least 27 people died in a rocket attack on Ukraine's strategic government-held port of Mariupol after Russian-backed rebels rejected peace talks, the mayor's office said. AFP PHOTO/ YURY KIRNICHNY (Photo credit should read YURY KIRNICHNY/AFP/Getty Images)
People hold placards reading 'I am Mariupol' as they stand beside candles on Independence Square in Kiev on 24, 2015, lit in mourning for people who died as a result of shelling in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. At least 27 people died in a rocket attack on Ukraine's strategic government-held port of Mariupol after Russian-backed rebels rejected peace talks, the mayor's office said. AFP PHOTO/ YURY KIRNICHNY (Photo credit should read YURY KIRNICHNY/AFP/Getty Images)
People lay tributes for victims of a shelling at a bus stop in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, during a rally on January 24, 2015. Eight civilians died in a trolleybus shelling in Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Donetsk, separatist and Kiev officials said on January 23, revising down an earlier toll. The trolleybus shelling was among the bloodiest incidents involving civilians in recent months in a conflict that has devastated the ex-Soviet republic's industrial heartland and brought Ukraine's economy to its knees. AFP PHOTO/ALEXANDER GAYUK (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER GAYUK/AFP/Getty Images)
People set candles on Independence Square in Kiev on January 24, 2015 in memory of people who died during shelling in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. At least 27 people died on January 24 in a rocket attack on Ukraine's strategic government-held port of Mariupol after Russian-backed rebels rejected peace talks, the mayor's office said. AFP PHOTO / ANATOLII STEPANOV (Photo credit should read ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MARIUPOL, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: At least 10 people have been killed and 46 others wounded by rockets Saturday in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on January 24, 2015. Buildings are on fire and damaged after this incident. (Photo by Maxim Scherbina/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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The United States now sees the Ukrainian rebels as a Russian force.

American officials briefed on intelligence from the region say Russia has significantly deepened its command and control of the militants in eastern Ukraine in recent months, leading the U.S. to quietly introduce a new term: "combined Russian-separatist forces." The State Department used the expression three times in a single statement last week, lambasting Moscow and the insurgents for a series of cease-fire violations in Ukraine.

The shift in U.S. perceptions could have wide-ranging ramifications, even if the Obama administration has cited close linkages between the pro-Russian separatists and Putin's government in Moscow since violence flared up in Ukraine a year ago.

By describing them as an integrated force in the east of the country, the U.S. is putting greater responsibility on Russia for the continued fighting. That will make it harder for Russia to persuade the U.S. and Europe to scale back sanctions that are hurting its economy, and for Washington and Moscow to partner on unrelated matters from nuclear nonproliferation to counterterrorism.

U.S. intelligence agencies signed off on the new language last week, after what officials outlined as increasing evidence of the Russians and separatists working together, training together and operating under a joint command structure that ultimately answers to Russia. The officials weren't authorized to be quoted by name and demanded anonymity.

Some of that evidence was presented in a statement released by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on April 22 after Secretary of State John Kerry raised his concerns by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Harf spoke of Russia's deployment of air defense systems closer to the front lines, increased troop levels near Kharkov, Ukraine's second largest city, and intensified training sessions involving the use of Russian drones. She called the unmanned aerial vehicles "an unmistakable sign of Russia's presence."

The uprising began after protesters chased Ukraine's pro-Russia president out of power and Moscow responded by annexing the Ukrainian region of Crimea. The insurgency started with miners, farmers and others without military training rebelling against the new government, and quickly expanded. More than 6,000 people have died and a million have been displaced by the conflict.

Russia's air defense concentration in eastern Ukraine is now at its highest level since August, the U.S. says. Russia has more ground forces at the border than at any point since October. These developments and others have American officials fearful that Moscow and the separatists may be planning an offensive in the coming weeks.

"War could start at any moment," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said this week.

Recent fighting has been concentrated near the Black Sea port of Mariupol. Ukraine's government still controls the territory, but a separatist takeover would establish a land bridge between mainland Russia and Crimea.

Associated Press reporting in eastern Ukraine this spring showed Russia expanding its training of separatist fighters to improve their capabilities to operate sophisticated Russian weaponry and defend territory. At the same time, Russia has reduced the number of its troops deployed in Ukraine.

The shift appears designed to minimize Russia's visible military presence while it seeks to persuade the West to lift economic sanctions.

Yet Russian troops have been a "permanent feature of the conflict," said Igor Sutyagin, a London-based Russia scholar.

Russian forces in Ukraine, he said, peaked at about 9,000 in late February. He calculated the estimation on sightings of weaponry and postings by soldiers on social media. Several hundred Russian military trainers are likely in eastern Ukraine right now, he said.

___

Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.

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