A Monday night announcement that U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan would return to Washington for consultations, despite reports that Sullivan was initially resisting Russian suggestions that he leave Moscow, also hinted at the Biden administration’s concerns about the growing tensions. The administration is still in talks with the Kremlin to hold a summit sometime this summer between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden said in remarks about Russia last week.
But Ukrainian officials now fear Russia’s buildup of forces, which has been unusually public and drawn out, is more than just saber-rattling to send a message to the West — and they have asked the U.S. repeatedly, both publicly and privately, for more weapons to fend off an increasingly plausible Russian incursion.
Among their requests: Patriot missiles, which are deployed in Poland but Ukrainian officials want on their soil, according to a person briefed on the requests and recent comments made by senior Ukrainian official Andriy Yermak. “Ukraine is holding the line against Russia, not just for us, but for the West,” he told TIME Magazine last week. “And where does the U.S. deploy its Patriot Missiles? The closest ones are in Poland. They should be here.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba told reporters on Tuesday that the situation is escalating and Moscow “will be prepared” to begin a “new stage of aggression” within a few weeks.
“We see strategic preparations of the Russian Federation, military preparations, and it is now in the hands of Ukraine and all of those who stand for respect for international law and sovereignty in Europe to demotivate Putin from making further aggressive steps,” he said.
If Russia were to attempt an invasion, the U.S. would be able to quickly send Ukraine some additional arms to bolster their defenses, officials said. Options include more shipments of Javelin anti-tank missiles, munitions and bombs. However, no plans to do so have been finalized. Biden this year approved an additional $125 million worth of lethal aid to help the country defend its borders, including two armed patrol boats and counter-artillery radar.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that the Biden administration was weighing sending additional arms to Ukraine.
Asked for comment, a NATO spokesperson pointed to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s calls last week for Russia to “de-escalate immediately, stop its pattern of aggressive provocations, and respect its international commitments.”
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have viewed the buildup more as posturing than as a sign of an imminent invasion, and the events of the past few days have not changed their overall concerns, according to U.S. officials briefed on the situation. Russia has clearly demonstrated the capability for military action and is trying to send a signal to the West, but its ultimate goals are still unclear, they said.
Experts and former senior officials, however, are expressing serious concern about an imminent invasion.
“What we are seeing right now is the beginning of the next phase, and I would say it is imminent, not possible but imminent, that there is going to be an escalation of the use of kinetic force,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army Forces Europe. He noted growing alarm in recent days about the sheer number of personnel and logistical support being sent to the border, as well as the naval buildup.
Hodges slammed Biden’s response to the crisis, as well as that of allies France and the United Kingdom, as “weak,” saying they need to do more than issue stern warnings.
Putin “is not spending a zillion rubles just to test” the new Biden administration, Hodges said. “He is going to press to find out how much of a priority Ukrainian sovereignty really is to the president of the United States.”
A broad assessment of the military situation compiled by Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and obtained by POLITICO said Russia was conducting “plausible preparations to conduct offensive military operations to ensure water supply to the” Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
It also assessed that there is a “high probability of a Georgia-like provocation against Ukrainian Joint Forces in the East” aimed at seizing more territory in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. And it predicted that Russia would deploy the necessary troops and assets to counterbalance the massive, Army-led NATO exercise taking place in the region called “Defender Europe.”
Kuleba met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week, where they discussed the deteriorating security situation in eastern Ukraine, along the border and in Crimea. During their private meeting, Kuleba asked Blinken about the status of Ukraine’s request for more military assistance, according to a person briefed on the meeting, and brought up the possibility that Ukraine be designated a Major non-NATO Ally should Kyiv’s efforts to join NATO fail.
Major non-NATO Allies enjoy a strategic working relationship with the U.S. armed forces and certain defense privileges, and the status “demonstrates our deep respect for the friendship for the countries to which it is extended,” according to the State Department. While such a status would be far less preferable for Ukraine than admission into NATO, which Kyiv has been wanting for years, it would at least send a strong signal to Moscow of Washington’s support for Ukraine, said the person briefed on the internal deliberations.
U.S. military officials, meanwhile, are growing more concerned about Russia’s buildup both on the land border with Ukraine and in the region’s waters. Several Russian warships have been relocated from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, signaling Moscow’s intention to “strengthen military capability in the Sea of Azov,” which lies between Ukraine, Russia, and Crimea, Kuleba said on Tuesday. He added that the relocation of the ships “is not the regular, common practice for the Russian Federation,” and suggests that the movements are not merely typical military exercises as Moscow has claimed.
The Pentagon is also skeptical of the Russians’ explanation that the buildup is part of a military exercise, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said this week.
“It’s not completely clear to us that’s exactly the purpose,” Kirby said. “We remain seriously concerned about this buildup, and we call on Russia to be more transparent about their intentions.” Kirby said the number of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border is now larger than in 2014.
Spokespeople for the Pentagon and U.S. European Command declined to comment beyond Kirby’s remarks. The National Security Council referred comment to the Pentagon and State Department.
Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine is just one of several issues that are escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow. The Biden administration recently leveled an array of sanctions on Russian officials related to allegations ranging from Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. elections to suspected Russian cyber espionage campaigns. The U.S. also expelled 10 Russian embassy officials, a move Moscow quickly reciprocated — although State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday that the U.S. had not received any official notification of the Kremlin’s intended actions against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia.
Meanwhile, leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny is on the brink of death in a Russian prison, his doctors and supporters have said, with the U.S. threatening action publicly and privately if the Kremlin allows him to die.
“In terms of the specific measures that we would take, we are looking at a variety of different costs that we would impose and I’m not going to telegraph that publicly at this point,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday. “But we have communicated that there will be consequences if Mr. Navalny dies.”
The Russian ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, last month returned home to Russia for consultations with his government. Antonov remains in Russia for the time being, the Russian Embassy in Washington confirmed Tuesday.
In a statement, the embassy noted recent NATO exercises, bomber and reconnaissance flights and previous U.S. weapons shipments to Ukraine.
“All this shows it is precisely NATO countries which are aggravating the situation around Ukraine with their provocative actions,” the statement said. “By the way, Ukraine is not included in NATO’s zone of responsibility. These provocative actions are fueling military revenge-seeking moods, as NATO builds up its military potential near this restless region.
“As for the Russia’s planned drills,” the statement added, “they are executed within Russian territory and pose threats to no country.”
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.