U.S. Says Russia ‘Clearly’ Now Has Capability To Attack As Ukraine Complains Of Western Panic

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The United States does not think Russian President Vladimir Putin has reached a decision on whether to attack Ukraine again, but Moscow “clearly now has that capability” to seize important territories from Kyiv, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday.

The Pentagon chief told reporters that Russia has continued to use disinformation channels to manufacture a pretext for a renewed invasion, but he added that Putin can still “do the right thing” by calling off the more than 100,000 troops he has stationed near Ukraine’s borders and by pursuing a diplomatic solution.

Washington “remains committed to helping Ukraine defend itself through security assistance material,” Austin added. “Whatever [Putin] decides, the United States will stand with our allies and partners.” (Kyiv is not a NATO member, and one of Moscow’s key demands is that the former Soviet state be permanently barred from joining the Western military alliance.)

On Friday, President Joe Biden said he planned to send some U.S. troops to Eastern Europe, describing the number as “not too many.” Biden has ruled out sending forces to Ukraine itself.

Even as the West rushes billions of dollars worth of economic and military assistance to Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has criticized how the United States and its close allies have handled the escalating tensions.

The 44-year-old leader faulted the West for waiting to impose more damaging sanctions on Moscow, while also assailing decisions by the United States, Britain and Australia to withdraw some embassy staffers and their families. And he has accused his Western counterparts of inciting “panic” with repeated suggestions that an invasion was imminent.

U.S. intelligence, relying in part on satellite imagery, has found that Russia is massing forces around Ukraine in support of a potential multi-front incursion. Moscow also is stocking blood supplies for troops near the border, Reuters reported late Friday, citing three unidentified U.S. officials.

Russia has denied plans to invade and says recent troop movements are part of a training exercise with Belarus.

In a Facebook post late Friday, the Russian embassy in Washington accused the United States of “pumping the #Kiev regime” nonstop with new weapons and inciting Ukrainian authorities to “military adventures” against the residents of Donbas, where Russia has been backing separatist proxy forces in a war with Ukrainian forces for eight years.

The Russian embassy said the United States was delivering hundreds of tons of military aid to Ukraine “under the slogans that the Russians are desperate to attack a neighboring state.”

“The crazy ‘horror stories’ have never come true,” the Russian embassy wrote.

U.S. officials, however, say Russia is clearly making preparations for a possible new invasion of Ukraine, even if Putin hasn’t decided whether to proceed with the operation. Austin said the number of military personnel the Kremlin has stationed near Ukraine “far and away exceeds what we typically see them do for exercises.”

The U.S. embassy in Kyiv, which has ordered diplomats’ families to leave the country, issued instructions on Saturday for how U.S. citizens could leave Ukraine by land, which would likely be necessary if Russian airstrikes or missile attacks were to close Ukrainian airspace. The embassy said U.S. citizens could exit Ukraine by land through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania or Moldova, but noted that U.S. citizens would need to apply for “permission for humanitarian reasons” to cross over the Polish border.

Zelensky said at a news conference Friday that the evidence of an imminent invasion was insufficient, even as he suggested that the troops were part of a Russian “sadomasochism” threat.

“We’re grateful to the United States for its constant support of our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said. “But I am the Ukrainian president. I’m located here. I know … deeper details than any president.”

The Ukrainian head of state faces the challenge of deterring Putin and also keeping Western investment flowing into his country as leaders in Washington and London warn of Russian aggression. The Ukrainian economy contracted sharply after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, but gross domestic product grew by 3.5 percent last year. Foreign direct investment also has not recovered to 2014 levels, but World Bank data also shows net inflows rising steadily through 2019.

On Friday, Zelensky tried to paint Ukraine as a reliable business partner – Kyiv has long tried to sell itself to Europe as an attractive investment destination – and urged Western companies to contribute “practical support” to the Ukrainian economy.

“There will be profit in the future. This profit is the attitude to Ukraine. Therefore – welcome! Invest in the state now, show that you believe in Ukraine!” the president told foreign reporters.

But Ukraine’s economy is dwarfed by that of Russia – which also is a key exporter of energy to Europe – and Putin has tried to use those commercial ties to put pressure on Western leaders. Zelensky told The Washington Post last year that Ukrainian security could be jeopardized once the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which allows Moscow to bypass Kyiv and send natural gas to Europe, is activated.

On Saturday, Russia relented to pressure by Ireland to move Russian navy exercises that Moscow had intended to hold from Feb. 3-8 in waters off the Irish coast that are part of Ireland’s exclusive economic zone. The Russian embassy in Ireland announced the change of plans after Irish fishermen threatened to intervene in the exercises, which were slated to be held in waters they regularly fish.

Russia’s defense minister decided to relocate the exercises outside Ireland’s exclusive economic zone as a result of the requests by the Irish government and Irish fishermen organizations, so as not to hinder fishing activity, the Russian embassy in Ireland said, describing the decision as a “gesture of goodwill.” Ireland is not a member of NATO.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russia-Ukraine crisis remained at a standstill after a Friday-morning call between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron. Putin has demanded an end to NATO’s open-door policy toward new members and has called on the Western alliance to withdraw military personnel and weapons from former Soviet states, saying their presence in the region is a threat to Russian security.

President Biden and his fellow NATO leaders have repeatedly affirmed the right of countries to enter the alliance if they choose. But Putin warned Macron that further NATO expansion was “unacceptable” to Russia, saying the U.S. and NATO response to Russia’s demands did not take into account Moscow’s key security concerns, the Kremlin said.

In response, Macron told Putin that Russia needs to respect the “essential principle of state sovereignty” to ensure security in Europe, according to a French official.

Putin left open the door for further diplomatic engagement, and on Monday, the United States will square off with Russia at the United Nations Security Council in a meeting requested by Washington. The Biden administration hopes to use the session to reaffirm support for Ukrainian territorial integrity, but Dmitry Polyanskiy, a top diplomat at Russia’s U.N. mission, tweeted that the meeting was a “clear PR stunt.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is slated to speak to Putin by phone this week and will “reiterate the need for Russia to step back,” his office said. He also will visit Eastern Europe.

While Putin’s relations with Washington are strained, he will meet in the coming days with world leaders who are more sympathetic to Moscow. In a potential effort to leverage signs of disunity in Europe, he will hold a joint news conference Tuesday with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who told local radio that he would be asking Putin to increase gas supplies to Budapest. Hungary is a member of both the European Union and NATO.

Putin also is to attend the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Beijing next week in a show of support to Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose government backed Putin’s efforts in Eastern Europe. In protest of China’s human rights abuses, the United States and several other Western nations are not sending senior officials to the Winter Games.

(c) 2022, The Washington Post · Amy Cheng, Siobhán O’Grady, Paul Sonne 



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