Air defense systems, such as stinger missiles, are also being considered, and the Defense Department has been pushing for some equipment that would have gone to Afghanistan, such as Mi-17 helicopters, to be sent to Ukraine. The Mi-17 is a Russian helicopter that the United States originally purchased to give to the Afghans. The Pentagon is now weighing what to do with them after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.
But others in the administration worry that Russia may view the shipment of stingers and helicopters as a major escalation. And while they are prepared to send some military advisers to the region, it is unclear if any would go to Ukraine itself, the people said.
Retired Lt. Col. Cedric Leighton told CNN that the Javelin anti-tank missiles “are quite effective against the T-80 tanks that the Russians are employing in these efforts against Ukraine right now.” But he noted that any additional aid to Ukraine certainly runs the risk of “further escalating tensions” with Moscow.
Meanwhile, US officials have been holding talks with European allies about drawing up a new sanctions package that would take effect if Russia invaded Ukraine, the sources said. And lawmakers are also manipulating new sanctions language for inclusion in the National Defense Authorization Act.
When asked about Russian military activity, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that the administration is concerned and has “had extensive interactions with our European allies and partners in recent weeks, even with Ukraine. ” He added that the United States “has also held talks with Russian officials about Ukraine and US-Russian relations in general.” The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, also spoke by phone with the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Valery Zaluzhny on Monday.
The discussions reflect the seriousness with which the Biden administration and Congress are taking the possibility that Russia could take action to invade Ukraine, a strategic ally of the United States, for the second time in less than a decade. And American officials are determined not to be caught off guard by a Russian military operation, as the Obama administration was in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and fueled an insurgency in parts of eastern Ukraine.
“Our concern is that Russia may make a serious mistake in trying to repeat what it undertook in 2014, when it accumulated forces along the border, crossed into sovereign territory of Ukraine, and did so on the false claim that it was provoked,” said the secretary of State Antony. Blinken said last week.
Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, rejected US warnings of a possible invasion, calling them “absolutely false” in a statement Monday.
“The US State Department through diplomatic channels brings to its allies and partners absolutely false information about the concentration of forces on the territory of our country for a military invasion of Ukraine,” said Sergei Ivanov, head of the office of SVR press.
For weeks, the United States has been sharing intelligence with NATO partners and European allies on unusual movements of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border that US military and intelligence officers believe could be a precursor to a flank military operation. eastern part of the country. The briefings have gone much further than in the past in terms of the level of alarm and specificity, said US, European and Ukrainian sources familiar with the discussions.
Ukraine’s tone has also changed significantly since the United States informed it. Earlier in the month, Ukrainian officials downplayed reports that Russia was concentrating forces near the border. Now, after extensive meetings between US and Ukrainian officials, Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief Brig. General Kyrylo Budanov publicly warns that Russia is developing a capacity to strike starting in January, a timeline in line with US assessments.
‘No smoking gun’
Still, officials say Russia’s final plan remains unclear. “There is no irrefutable proof or decisive indicator of Putin’s intentions,” said a defense official. And the maneuvers may be an effort to sow confusion or force the West to make concessions, rather than a precursor to an invasion.
But the United States still warns of the possibility that, in the worst case, Moscow will attempt a regime change in Kiev, driven in large part by Putin’s determination to prevent Ukraine from moving closer to the West and potentially joining the NATO.
“That goal is not achieved by making another part of the eastern Donetsk region,” said a person familiar with the intelligence. “It has to be more than that. If that is [Putin’s] goal, so you don’t do it by doing something small. ”
US officials have also shared with senior Ukrainian officials evidence that Russia, through the FSB, Russia’s successor to the KGB, is engaging in destabilizing activities within Ukraine to foster dissent against the administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. They have also pointed to the presence of Spetsnaz special forces and intelligence agents GRU and SVR near Ukraine’s borders.
Ukrainian defense officials have projected that Russia could use the dozens of battalion tactical groups currently stationed near Ukraine’s borders to launch an attack from multiple sides, including annexed Crimea, according to Ukrainian military assessments provided to The Military Times.
US officials are closely watching Russian activity in Crimea, where Russia sent troops and military units in the spring as part of what it claimed were exercises. Although Russia’s Defense Ministry ordered at least some of the troops to withdraw in April, some elements remained, according to Ukrainian assessments and sources familiar with the matter.
Movements in Congress
Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have added proposed amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2022 that would address Russia’s latest provocations, but have yet to pass a final version.
An amendment proposed by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, reviewed by CNN, says that “President Joe Biden should impose substantial new sanctions” against senior Kremlin officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the event of an escalation. Russian military. against Ukraine. The amendment also calls for additional sanctions on the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which Ukraine has been pushing.
Republicans on the committee see Nord Stream’s sanctions language as a positive step, the sources said, but they want the amendment to trigger sanctions automatically in the event of a Russian incursion rather than leaving the determination up to the administration.
Germany, which has been involved in the pipeline project with Russia, recently announced that it is temporarily pausing the pipeline certification process. But Ukraine also wants the United States to do more to block the pipeline, which it says Russia is arming to weaken Ukraine by cutting off its power supply and revenues heading into the winter, a Zelensky adviser told CNN.
“While the Biden administration warns of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, its top officials are on Capitol Hill trying to protect Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline by pushing against the inclusion of sanctions against it in the annual defense bill.” said the advisor.
CNN’s Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.