U.S. Secret Service Finds Russia Preparing Ukraine Offensive

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden on Friday pledged to make it “very, very difficult” for Russia’s Vladimir Putin to take military action in Ukraine as US intelligence officials determine Russia is planning a possible military offensive which could begin as soon as possible. in early 2022.

The new intelligence finding estimates that the Russians plan to deploy around 175,000 troops and that nearly half of them are already deployed along various points near the Ukrainian border, according to a Biden administration official who s ‘is expressed on condition of anonymity to discuss the discovery.

It comes as Russia resumed its demands on Biden to ensure that Ukraine will not be allowed to join the NATO alliance.

The official added that plans call for the movement of 100 battalion tactical groups as well as armor, artillery and equipment.

Intelligence officials have also seen an increase in Russian propaganda efforts through the use of proxies and the media to disparage Ukraine and NATO ahead of a possible invasion, the official said.

Asked about the intelligence discovery on his way to the presidential retreat at Camp David on Friday night, Biden reiterated his concerns about the Russian provocations.

“We’ve known about Russia’s actions for a long time and I expect we’ll have a long discussion with Putin,” Biden said.

The risks of such a gamble for Putin, if he did indeed proceed with an invasion, would be enormous.

U.S. officials and former U.S. diplomats say that if Putin clearly sets the stage for a possible invasion, the Ukrainian military is better armed and prepared today than in years past, and the sanctions threatened by the West would cause harm. serious damage to the Russian economy. It is still unclear whether Putin intends to carry out what would be a risky offensive, they say.

Earlier Friday, Biden pledged to make military action in Ukraine “very, very difficult” for Putin and said new initiatives from his administration are aimed at deterring Russian aggression.

“What I’m doing is putting in place what I think is the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to move forward and do what people fear he will do, “Biden said. journalists.

The Kremlin said on Friday that Putin would seek binding guarantees preventing NATO expansion in Ukraine during the call with Biden. But Biden has sought to push back the request.

“I don’t accept anyone’s red line,” Biden said.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials have also warned that Russia could invade next month. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told lawmakers on Friday that the number of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Russia annexed Crimea is estimated at 94,300, warning that a “large-scale escalation” is possible in January. US intelligence officials estimate nearly 70,000 troops are deployed near the border, according to an unclassified intelligence document obtained by The Associated Press on Friday.

The intelligence findings were first reported by the Washington Post.

There are signs that the White House and the Kremlin are set to hold a conversation next week between Biden and Putin. Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters on Friday that arrangements had been made for a Putin-Biden appeal in the coming days, adding that the date would be announced after Moscow and Washington finalized the details. The Russians say a date has been agreed, but declined to say when.

Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also tentatively agreed to make a call next week, according to a person close to the Ukrainian president who was not allowed to speak in public and spoke on condition of anonymity.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said administration officials had “engaged in the possibility” of a Biden-Putin appeal. White House officials did not respond to a request for comment on Zelenskyy’s expected appeal.

“It would certainly be an opportunity to discuss our grave concerns about the belligerent rhetoric, the military build-up that we see on the border with Ukraine,” Psaki said of a potential Biden-Putin appeal.

Biden did not detail the actions he weighed. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Sweden on Thursday, said the United States had threatened further sanctions. He did not detail the potential sanctions but suggested the effort would not be effective.

“If the new ‘hell sanctions’ come along, we will respond,” Lavrov said. “We cannot fail to respond.”

Psaki said the administration will seek to coordinate with European allies if it goes ahead with the sanctions. She noted that bitter memories of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that had been under Ukraine’s control since 1954, come to mind as the White House contemplates the path to follow.

“We know what President Putin has done in the past,” Psaki said. “We see that he is building the capacity to act as quickly as possible.”

Deep differences were displayed during the Blinken-Lavrov meeting, the Russian official instructing the West to “play with fire” by denying Russia a say in any further NATO expansion in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Zelenskyy pushed Ukraine to join the alliance, which keeps the membership promise but has not set a timeline.

Blinken said this week that the United States had “made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a series of high-impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past.”

He did not say what sanctions were being considered, but one of them could be to cut Russia off from the SWIFT international payments system. The European Union’s parliament in April approved a non-binding resolution to cut Russia off from SWIFT if its troops entered Ukraine.

Such a move would go a long way in blocking Russian companies from the global financial system. Western allies reportedly considered such a step in 2014 and 2015, during previous escalations of Russian-led tensions over Ukraine.

The then Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, declared that this would amount to “a declaration of war”.

But some U.S. government officials say Putin may also seek the attention and concessions of Biden and other Western leaders, using military escalation to force Russia to resume a central role in world affairs as it does in the United States. era of the Soviet Union.

“They are seriously envious of the superpower status and (…) parity with the United States that existed during the Cold War. That’s what it is, ”said John Herbst, former US Ambassador to Ukraine.

An invasion is possible, but more likely, “they cause a crisis, they get concessions from us, then they reduce the crisis. Law? And that, I think, is probably their goal, ”Herbst said on Friday.

Associated Press editors Vladimir Isachenkov and Dasha Litvinova in Moscow contributed reporting.

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