The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Moscow’s focus, as revealed in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s references to a “special military operation” to “demilitarize” the neighboring country, would be to encircle Ukrainian forces and force them to surrender or be destroyed.
They expect Kyiv to be taken within 96 hours, and then the leadership of Ukraine to follow in about a week’s time.
And Russia’s thunderous attacks on Ukrainian government and military institutions, paired with reports of ground personnel seeking to take strategic points including the Chernobyl nuclear facility, appeared to only be the initial phase of what may be a more comprehensive ground campaign.
One former senior U.S. intelligence officer with extensive experience dealing with Russia expressed a similar sentiment.
“After the air and artillery end and the ground war really starts, I think Kyiv falls in just a few days,” the former senior U.S. intelligence officer told Newsweek on the condition of anonymity as well.
“The military may last slightly longer,” the former intelligence officer added, “but this isn’t going to last long.”
Afterward, the senior U.S. intelligence officer stated the next stages may be determined by U.S. President Joe Biden’s capability and willingness to risk further provoking Moscow by supporting partisan efforts on behalf of a potential Ukrainian resistance.
“Then it either becomes a robust insurgency or it doesn’t, depending largely on Biden,” the former senior U.S. intelligence officer continued.
A source close to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government, who also asked not to be named, agreed with the U.S. assessment that Kyiv could be surrounded within 96 hours. But they did not believe Zelenskyy’s government would collapse.
Asked by Newsweek whether the government was confident it could break a possible Russian encirclement, the source noted, “I think it’s too early to say…They say Ukraine is holding better than they expected.”
A NATO diplomatic official, who also did not wish to be named as the official was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, told Newsweek of the U.S. assessment.
“My personal opinion: unfortunately, it does sound rather believable. However, I think now the first 24 hours are the most critical,” the official stated.
The Antonov Airport near the town of Hostomel, just outside Kyiv, was the scene of some of the most dramatic early fighting. Ukrainian Interior Ministry officials reported early Thursday that Russian helicopter-borne forces had seized the airfield, though fighting around it is believed to be ongoing.
The outcome could be pivotal to Ukraine’s fate. The airport is 15 miles west of Kyiv. If secured by Russian troops, Antonov could become a springboard for an assault on the capital.
“Let’s see if they can counter,” the Ukrainian source said of the Ukrainian troops at Hostomel.
Zelensky tweeted on Thursday evening that Russian troops are trying to capture the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the northern part of the Kiev Region. The plant was the site of the 1986 disaster, which caused massive contamination of the surrounding area and parts of Europe.
He claimed there was fighting in Chernobyl hours into Moscow’s “special operation”.
“Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” Zelensky tweeted.
Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine came late Wednesday as the Russian leader accused the fellow former Soviet republic of acting as a puppet to Western interests by seeking to join the U.S.-led NATO military alliance and acquire weapons to threaten Russia’s national security.