U.S. vows to move more forces closer to Russia if Moscow invades Ukraine

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The Biden administration warned Russia Thursday that Moscow risks seeing more U.S. and allied troops and arms closer to Russian borders if President Vladimir Putin goes ahead with an invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the unfolding crisis in eastern Europe Thursday called the build-up of Russian military forces in recent months near Ukraine’s border “alarming.”

However, the latest intelligence assessment still indicates a decision to go to war against Kyiv in support of pro-Russian Ukrainian forces has not been made yet by the Kremlin. “Our sense is they have not made a decision yet,” the senior official said.

“It’s clear to us that if Russia goes ahead with what may be underway, we and our allies are prepared to impose severe costs that would damage Russia’s economy and bring about exactly what it says it does not want: more NATO capabilities — not less — closer to Russia, not further away,” the senior official said.

Both Washington and Moscow this week have talked of direct negotiations early next month to address the crisis and a list of security “guarantees” Mr. Putin is demanding the U.S. and NATO agree to. U.S. officials said Thursday they were ready for talks provided the negotiations are sincere, reciprocal, and will not involve undermining the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

No date for talks has been set, which could be held through a forum called the Strategic Stability Dialogue.

Top Biden officials have said there are some Russian demands the U.S. and its allies would be willing to discuss, but others will “never be agreed to,” the senior official said. Negotiations will not be held in public, the official added.

“We are continuing to monitor Russia’s alarming movement of forces and deployments along the border with Ukraine,” the senior official said.

A small step toward de-escalating tensions was a recent agreement by the governments of both Russia and Ukraine to recommit to a July 2020 cease-fire, the senior official said. The separatist war, backed by Russian arms, has taken some 14,000 lives in eastern Ukraine since breaking out in 2014 — the same year Mr. Putin engineered the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.

Mr. Putin, in his traditional year-end marathon press conference, again painted Russia as the aggrieved party in the face of what he said was a relentless NATO expansion eastward, and issued a demand that Western governments provide security guarantees “immediately” against future incursions. One demand that Mr. Biden and NATO officials have rejected out of hand was a promise that front-line states such as Ukraine and Georgia would never be offered full NATO membership.

Moscow earlier this month issued a draft treaty listing its demands for what is mainly a restructuring of NATO and European security policies.

“You should give us guarantees … and without any delay! Now!” Mr. Putin said.

The Russian leader repeated earlier assertions that U.S. missiles in Europe posed a threat, an apparent reference to Aegis Ashore missile defense interceptors in Poland and Romania

“Were we the ones who placed missiles next to the U.S. borders?” Mr. Putin said, responding to a reporter’s question. “No. It is the U.S. with its missiles who came to our home and are on the threshold of our home. … Is it an unusual demand? Do not place any more assault systems next to our home? What is unusual about it?”

Watching warily

U.S. intelligence agencies are closely monitoring Russia military moves. Many believe Mr. Putin is seeking some move by the West to justify an incursion into Ukraine. Recent troubling signals, U.S. analysts say, include the escalating Russian demands, Mr. Putin’s meetings with national security and defense officials, and a phone call between Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week.

Exploiting another pressure point, Moscow this week also reduced the flow of natural gas to Europe through the Yamal-European pipeline to 5% capacity, the lowest level in 2021.

Russian control over energy resources for Europe is a significant consideration for the United States and allies, the senior official said.

The United States and NATO say they are prepared to act both militarily and through the imposition of stiff economic sanctions on Russian financial and commercial interests if the invasion takes place.

“Our actions will not just be limited to economic actions,” the senior official said, noting likely stepped up provision of weapons to Kyiv and changes in force postures. “We’re preparing for any contingency on the assumption that this could happen.”

Asked about Mr. Putin’s reference to U.S. missiles on Russia’s doorstep, the senior official said: “That’s a better question to pose to the Kremlin.”

“I could very easily go through a litany of provocative Russian deployment of troops, of offensive systems on the border of NATO-allied countries. I don’t think it is productive to get into that sort of tit-for-tat.”

Moscow also has been engaged in aggressive disinformation operations seeking to inaccurately portray Ukraine as being at fault for the crisis and for spurning a diplomatic process seeking a political compromise in the separatist war..

“We have seen stepped-up efforts by the Russian government to do what it has often done in advance of these sorts of incursions in the past, which is increase disinformation, try to drive a narrative publicly that it is Ukraine that is escalating, as opposed to Russia,” the senior official said.

“To be clear, we see no evidence of that on the Ukrainian side.”

American allies and partners have been told that “this is Russian disinformation,” the senior official noted.

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