The United States seeks to strike a balance as fears grow over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine

The United States seeks to strike a balance as fears grow over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine

Washington The build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine has left US officials confused, muddling the Biden administration’s response.

Some Republican lawmakers are pressing the United States to increase military support for Ukraine. But this risks turning what may be a flexing of muscle by Russian President Vladimir Putin into an all-out confrontation that only increases the risk to Ukraine and could lead to an energy crisis in Europe.

But the weak US response carries its own risks. It could encourage Putin to take more aggressive steps against Ukraine as fears grow that he might try to seize more of its territory. It could cause more political damage to President Joe Biden at a time when his popularity is plummeting.

Knowing how to strike the right balance would be easier if the United States had a better understanding of what Putin was trying to achieve. But senior officials admit they don’t know.

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“We’re not sure exactly what Mr. Putin will do,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday. A week ago, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said: “We don’t have clarity about Moscow’s intentions, but we know its evidence.”

Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said a better understanding of Putin’s intentions is critical to “avoiding the mistakes that led to major wars.”

He said any US response should be calculated to avoid being “appeasement or provocation”.

“This is a difficult and difficult area to try to get information,” he said. “It is a challenge as difficult or even more difficult than it has ever been. It has a very serious impact on our ability to make the right decisions.”

Russia took control of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kiev and Russian-backed rebels in the region known as Donbas has killed an estimated 14,000 people. Now, Ukraine says an estimated 90,000 Russian soldiers have massed near the border.

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The Horde may be a prelude to another Russian invasion. Speaking to Ukraine’s foreign minister this month, Blinkin said Putin’s “gamebook” is for Russia to build up forces near the border and then invade, “falsely claiming to have been provoked.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that the alliance is seeing an “extraordinary concentration” of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border, warning that Moscow has used the same type of forces in the past to intervene in neighboring countries.

Although US officials do not believe an invasion is imminent, Putin has also stepped up his sacking of independent Ukraine. A lengthy article published by the Kremlin in July asserts that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

But these moves may also be a rattling to prevent Ukraine from getting any closer to the West or joining NATO, which Putin vehemently opposes. It is not clear whether Russia would risk invading Ukraine, spark a more difficult war, or want to occupy a hostile region.

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And a similar Russian military build-up in the spring did not lead to an invasion, although lawmakers and officials say they are more concerned now, citing unreported US intelligence.

Russia denies it has aggressive motives, insisting it is responding to increased NATO activity near its borders and the strengthening of the Ukrainian military.

Speaking on Thursday, Putin said: “It should be borne in mind that Western partners are aggravating the situation by supplying Kiev with modern lethal weapons and carrying out provocative military exercises in the Black Sea – and not only in the Black Sea but also in other countries. Areas close to our borders ” .

The United States has sent ships to the Black Sea as part of NATO’s activity alongside Ukraine, and in recent weeks has delivered military equipment as part of a $60 million package announced in September. Since 2014, the United States has committed more than $2.5 billion to help Ukraine strengthen its defense.

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The White House said it hoped to ease tensions. “As we have made clear in the past, escalatory or aggressive actions by Russia will be of great concern to the United States,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council said in a statement.

There has been a flurry of diplomacy in recent weeks. US leaders have met with their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, including a visit to Moscow by CIA Director William Burns during which he spoke to Putin by phone. Germany and France issued a joint statement affirming their support for Ukraine.

Ultimately, the United States has few obvious options to stop Putin if he presses forward.

The Biden administration in April imposed new sanctions on Russia over what it said was Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict as well as allegations that it instigated cyber attacks on US infrastructure and interference in US elections.

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Lawmakers and experts have said further sanctions are unlikely to affect Putin’s behavior. The Biden administration in May canceled sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will transport Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.

A group of Republican lawmakers this month called on the United States to provide more lethal assistance to the Ukrainian military, step up intelligence sharing, or deploy a larger presence of its own in the Black Sea. But Russia can respond quickly with more troops.

Putin could respond to any Western action by limiting energy exports to Europe, which relies heavily on Russian natural gas.

“The traditional tools that nation states use to control the behavior of other nation states are not available,” said Douglas Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “The Russians have very little risk.”

Two analysts, writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Putin may want to send a message to Washington that it should treat Russia “as a major power that cannot be sidelined on the American agenda.” But analysts also described Ukraine as Putin’s “unfinished business”.

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Eugene Romer and Andrew Weiss wrote: “This unfinished business is to restore Russia’s dominance over key parts of its historical empire.” “No item on this agenda is more important – or more important – than Ukraine’s return to the fold.”

Trying to seize more of Ukraine — or even push into Kiev — would be much more difficult than seizing Crimea or parts of eastern Ukraine, said Paul Colby, a former CIA officer who leads the intelligence project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center.

Colby said Putin could achieve many of his goals without an invasion, by putting pressure on Ukraine and NATO and driving a wedge between allies over how to respond.

“It fits into a larger pattern of making sure that they perceive that they do not face threats on their close borders,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Jim Haynes in Moscow contributed to this report.

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