Ukraine crisis: US weighs more on military support for Ukraine to stand up to Russia if it invades

The talks, described by multiple sources familiar with them, reflect a sense of pessimism within the administration following last week’s diplomatic talks with Russian officials that yielded no breakthrough and as the Russia has continued to increase its force levels in recent days.

In addition to examining how to help the Ukrainian military and government repel an invasion, the United States is evaluating options to strengthen the ability of Ukrainian forces to resist a possible Russian occupation. This includes potentially supplying the Ukrainian military with additional ammunition, mortars, Javelin anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missile systems, which would likely come from NATO allies, a senior US official told CNN.

The news comes ahead of a face-to-face meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday. A senior State Department official said the planned meeting “suggests diplomacy may not be dead.”
President Joe Biden has said sending US combat troops to Ukraine to fight a war with Russia is out of the question. But special operations forces are already rotating in and out of the country to train Ukrainian forces and a senior administration official said it was possible other agencies could provide a some support, probably the CIA. CIA Director Bill Burns traveled to Kyiv last week to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and discuss risks to Ukraine, a US official said.

“We are looking at a range of options to help defend Ukraine,” a senior administration official told CNN. This may include additional defensive arms sales, “advice” and “helping Ukraine stay in the fight against a larger conventional Russian military presence.”

Deliberations over backing a resistance campaign reflect an increasingly pessimistic view within the administration about Putin’s willingness to invade and occupy large swathes of Ukrainian territory. Russia has increased its workforce since Friday, the senior administration official said.

“Let’s be clear. Our point of view is that this is an extremely dangerous situation. We are now at a stage where Russia could launch an attack in Ukraine at any time,” the press secretary said on Tuesday. the White House, Jen Psaki. “And what Secretary Blinken is going to do is make it very clear that there is a diplomatic path to follow. It is up to President Putin and the Russians to decide whether or not they will suffer serious economic consequences. “

At present, military sources familiar with the planning say there has been no official change in guidance from Washington, and officials have stressed that these are early considerations that have not not yet been formally presented to the President for approval. Some in the administration fear becoming bogged down in an anti-occupation support effort and have argued that US forces should leave if a war breaks out.

Increased pessimism

US officials left meetings in Europe last week even more pessimistic about what Putin might be up to and how limited the West’s influence is to stop him, even with the punitive sanctions and increased presence of NATO in Eastern Europe currently on the table.

“We can demand pain, but there’s a big difference between demanding pain and actually having influence,” a senior US official said.

As recently as last week, Biden administration officials were conducting tabletop exercises to assess all possible U.S. and allied policy responses, sources familiar with the planning told CNN. Senior U.S. officials also spent much of the weekend in high-level meetings discussing the way forward, a senior State Department official said.

The United States has continued to say that diplomacy is “crucial” and talks will hopefully continue. But there were no details on what the next diplomatic steps will look like, and Russia has scaled back its diplomatic presence in Kyiv in what a US official has called disturbing and concerning for the United States. The Russian Foreign Ministry denied on Tuesday that it had started evacuating diplomatic personnel, saying “the Russian Embassy in Kyiv is operating in a standard manner”.

Pentagon officials, meanwhile, have been hammering out options for how the United States could help fuel a sustained campaign of resistance in Ukraine and inflict the highest possible costs on Russia following any invasion, according to sources familiar with the conversations.

The CIA continues to run an intelligence-gathering training program in the United States for Ukrainian special operators and intelligence officials, current and former officials familiar with the program told CNN. The program was reported for the first time by Yahoo News.

A CIA spokesman has pushed back against any suggestion that the program has helped form a standby Ukrainian insurgency, but former intelligence officials who know him say the program includes the kind of covert paramilitary training needed to collect intelligence. intelligence in a war zone.

“The purpose of the training, and the training that was provided, was to assist in intelligence gathering, not to assist in an insurgency,” a senior intelligence official said.

Putin’s plans still unclear

US officials still don’t know what Putin’s plans are, or if he has even decided to invade. Some officials who have seen the intelligence say there is evidence Russia is planning to try to take Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and overthrow the government. The deployment of forces from Russia’s Eastern Military District to Belarus on Monday struck many US officials and Russian military analysts as particularly worrisome, as did a series of cyberattacks targeting Ukraine last week.

But others believe it is more likely that Russia will launch a more limited operation in eastern Ukraine aimed at securing a land bridge to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. The United States has accused Russia on Friday of prepositioning a group of operatives in eastern Ukraine to carry out a false flag operation, accusing Ukraine of provocations and using it to justify an invasion.
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As in the Biden administration, Ukrainian officials have not concluded that Putin has made up his mind, a Ukrainian official said, adding that the talks in Europe had had no discernible impact on the crisis. Meanwhile, the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders – and in neighboring Belarus – has continued to grow.

“We see it’s not de-escalation, it’s happening,” the official said. “It’s still not enough to make a full-scale invasion and sustain it, but it’s still a lot.”

As part of the build-up, Russia has deployed more aircraft closer to the border, raising fears of a large air component to a possible invasion. Two to three dozen Sukhov-34 fighter jets joined helicopters positioned near Ukraine, the official said.

Ukrainian defense officials are in daily contact with their American counterparts at the Pentagon, the official said, preparing for a variety of different actions the Russians could take.

“We have prepared a response for each scenario,” the official said. “We will fight if anything happens. Our people are ready to fight. Every window will shoot if [Russians] go [in].”

“Anyone who is ready to fight will do so and will be given a weapon for it, like in 2014,” the official continued, adding that individual “reservists” who have received training will simply have to register at a recruiting office. . Asked about the provenance of the weapons intended for these reservists, the official said that they would come from Ukrainian stocks supported by NATO. “Material support from partners will also go to them,” he said.

CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed reporting.

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