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The build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine left US officials puzzled, blurring the Biden administration’s response.

Some Republican lawmakers have pressured the United States to step up its military support for Ukraine. But it risks turning what might be a mere muscular maneuver by Russian President Vladimir Putin into a full-fledged confrontation that only adds to the peril for Ukraine and could trigger an energy crisis in Europe.

But a weak American response comes with its own risks. This could encourage Putin to take more aggressive action against Ukraine as fears grow that he may try to take more of his territory. And it could cause more political damage to President Joe Biden at a time when his popularity is waning.

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

“We don’t know exactly what Mr. Putin is doing,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday. A week earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “We have no clarity on Moscow’s intentions, but we know its rules of the game.”

Representative Mike Quigley, Democrat of Illinois and member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that a better understanding of Putin’s intentions was essential “to avoid the mistakes that started great wars.”

Any American response must be calibrated to avoid being “an appeasement or a provocateur,” he said.

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

Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, and an ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kiev and Russian-backed rebels in the region known as Donbas has left around 14 000 dead. Today Ukraine says about 90,000 Russian troops have gathered near the border.

The build-up could be a prelude to another Russian invasion. Speaking to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister this month, Blinken said Putin’s “game plan” was for Russia to strengthen its forces near the border and then invade, “wrongly claiming it was provoked.” .

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday the alliance was witnessing an “unusual concentration” of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border, warning that the same type of forces had been used by Moscow in the past. to intervene in neighboring countries.

While U.S. officials don’t believe an invasion is imminent, Putin has also stepped up his sacking of an independent Ukraine. A long essay published by the Kremlin in July asserts that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and that “Ukraine’s true sovereignty is only possible in partnership with Russia.”

But these measures could also be a slash to prevent Ukraine from moving closer to the West or being admitted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Putin firmly opposes. It is not clear whether Russia would risk invading Ukraine, starting a much more difficult war, or wanting to occupy hostile territory.

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 US intelligence that has not been made public.

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

Speaking on Thursday, Putin said: “It must be taken into account that the Western partners are making the situation worse by supplying deadly modern weapons to Kiev and by carrying out provocative military maneuvers in the Black Sea – and not just in the Black Sea. but also in other regions close to our borders.

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

The White House has said it hopes to defuse tensions. “As we have made clear in the past, escalating or aggressive actions on the part of Russia would be of great concern to the United States,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council said in a statement.

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

Ultimately, the United States has few apparent good options to stop Putin if he goes ahead.

The Biden administration in April imposed new sanctions on Russia over what it called Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict, as well as allegations it encouraged cyber attacks on US infrastructure and meddling. in the American elections.

The imposition of additional sanctions is unlikely to influence Putin’s behavior, lawmakers and experts have said. In May, the Biden administration lifted sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bring Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.

A group of Republican lawmakers this month called on the United States to provide more deadly aid to the Ukrainian military, step up intelligence sharing or deploy a larger presence in the Black Sea. But Russia could quickly counter with more force.

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

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

Writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, two analysts said Putin might want to send a message to Washington that he must treat Russia “as a major power that cannot be marginalized on the US agenda.” But analysts also described Ukraine as Putin’s “unfinished business”.

“This unfinished business is the restoration of Russian rule over key parts of its historic empire,” wrote Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss. “No item on this agenda is more important – or more crucial – than the return of Ukraine to the fold.”

Trying to take over more of Ukraine – or even push as far as Kiev – would be much more difficult than taking over Crimea or parts of eastern Ukraine, he said. said Paul Kolbe, a former CIA officer who heads the intelligence project at the Belfer Center at Harvard University.

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

“This is part of a larger scheme of ensuring, from their perception, that they are not faced with threats on their nearby borders,” he said.

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


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