Biden scrambling to pressure Russia as Ukraine fears intensify

The Biden administration is scrambling to put pressure on Russia amid rising fears of a possible Russian military incursion in Ukraine.

The State Department has ordered the evacuation of family members of U.S. government employees in Ukraine and the Pentagon is readying up to 8,500 troops to potentially deploy to eastern Europe. 

For the past week, the Biden administration has warned that Russia could choose to attack Ukraine at any moment, but the flurry of developments in recent days suggest that officials are cognizant of a rising threat from Moscow.

The troop deployments would send a warning sign to Russian President Vladimir Putin as he weighs military action against Ukraine, said John Sipher, a veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service. 

“Building up troops and capabilities in NATO is something that Putin does not want to happen. This is important because he needs to see that there are serious consequences to his actions,” he said. “I don't know if it is enough or is too late but the Administration needs to change the calculus and offer credible threats to Putin.”

Speaking to reporters at a briefing Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden had never ruled out sending troops to eastern Europe in advance of a Russian invasion and that additional deployments have been part of ongoing talks with European allies. 

Still, weeks of diplomatic engagements between the U.S. and Russia have thus far proven unsuccessful in convincing Moscow to pull back some 100,000 troops stationed at Ukraine’s border.  

“All Putin has done is continue to escalate militarily,” said Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia during the Obama administration. “He is showing no sign of backing down.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken just returned from Europe, where he had in-person discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in hopes of convincing Russia to pull back troops from Ukraine’s border. The State Department is expected to send Russia a written response to its demands sometime this week. 

However, the U.S. has rejected many of Russia’s demands about NATO, instead offering to broker “reciprocal” agreements on missile deployments and military exercises if Moscow deescalates along Ukraine’s border. 

“Just because we are ready and engaged in the process and path of diplomacy and dialogue doesn’t mean were not preparing with defense and deterrence,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Monday. “We are doing both at the same time, precisely because we are ready for either choice that Vladimir Putin makes.”

The Biden administration has also threatened punishing economic sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, including sweeping export controls to disrupt key Russian industries. But Blinken seemed to rule out proactively issuing sanctions before an incursion during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.

Monday’s action from the U.S. to place up to 8,500 troops on heightened alert doesn’t send troops to Ukraine, nor does it immediately deploy troops to eastern Europe. Those troops are intended to help bolster NATO’s Response Force, a multinational force of about 40,000 troops that can deploy on short notice if needed. 

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters that the troops — which comprise a variety of units — would be ready to go should NATO activate the readiness force, which the alliance has not done yet. Kirby stressed, however, that no decision on deploying troops to the region has been made. 

“No mission has been assigned to these troops. No deployment orders have been sent to them,” Kirby said. “What the secretary has ordered them to do is to be ready to go in some cases on a much shorter tether than what they had before.” 

The U.S. and other NATO countries have already been ramping up support for Ukraine’s military amid the threat of a Russian incursion.

Washington has provided over $650 million in security assistance to Ukraine over the past year, more than at any other point since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. 

Over the weekend, Ukraine touted a second shipment of weapons from the U.S. as part of a $200 million defensive aid package that included 80 tons of weapons for Kyiv’s defensive capabilities. NATO also sent more ships and fighter jets to eastern Europe on Monday. 

It remains unclear what Putin will do next, and whether he intends to invade Ukraine or use the threat of military action as a point of leverage. Some experts estimate that a military invasion of some kind is more than likely, while others say Putin is likely to launch cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and other such actions that fall short of war. 

“He really wants to have Ukraine back under the Russian fold. He wants a government in Kiev that is more sympathetic to Russia and he wants Ukraine to agree that it will remain neutral,” Angela Stent, an expert in U.S. and European relations with Russia, said of Putin.

Stent described the possible deployments as a “symbolic force” necessary to show solidarity with allies but warned that sending in more troops could have the unintended effect of escalating tensions if Russia responds with their own deployments. 

“The problem is you don’t want to get into an escalatory cycle,” she said.

Biden held a secure video call with European leaders on Monday afternoon to discuss diplomatic efforts and deterrence amid Russia’s threatening behavior toward Ukraine. Biden insisted there is "total unanimity" between the U.S. and European leaders in a brief exchange with reporters following the call. 

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday requested an all-member briefing on Ukraine that the White House signaled it would satisfy. 

Farkas, the former Pentagon official under Obama, argued that the U.S. and NATO need to provide Ukraine with better assistance for air defense and maritime defense so that Kyiv can better defend its territory on all fronts. 

“They need to make sure that they diminish the likelihood that Vladimir Putin can have control over Ukrainian territory and the Ukrainian government,” Farkas said.

She also argued that the U.S. and its European allies need to use the United Nations to rally the global community against Putin, likening a Russian invasion to Iraq leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. 

“We can’t let the U.N. charter be trampled over by the likes of Vladimir Putin,” she said. “We will see challenges across the globe if Vladimir Putin gets his way.” 

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