US intelligence sees Russian plan for possible invasion of Ukraine

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s growing alarm about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine is based in part on US intelligence that Moscow has plans for a military offensive with an estimated 175,000 troops early next year.

An unclassified US intelligence document details some intelligence findings, including the positioning of what officials say could eventually be 100 tactical battalion groups, as well as heavy armor, artillery and other equipment.

The information was first reported Friday by The Washington Post.

US officials emphasize that the intentions of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia remain unclear and that the intelligence does not show that he has decided to carry out the apparent war plan.

But the intelligence shows a Russian military machine springing into action, positioning itself for an attack against which experts say the Ukrainian military would stand little chance. About half of the Russian troops that would be used in an invasion are already near the border with Ukraine, and Moscow is quickly building a large force of contracted military reservists, according to an official from the Biden administration who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

A Russian invasion of Ukraine would cause a major national security crisis for Europe and the Biden administration, which has declared a “cast-iron commitment” to Ukraine’s borders and independence.

The document contains satellite photos indicating a build-up of Russian troops and equipment near Ukraine’s eastern border, and says Russian plans involve moving troops to and from the Ukrainian border “to obscure intentions and create uncertainty.”

Concerns over Mr Putin’s intentions have been fueled by what US officials are calling a rise in disinformation in the Russian media, describing NATO and Ukraine as threats to Russia, possibly as a pretext for Russian escalation. The government official said Russian officials had also proposed intelligence operations within Ukraine, portraying that country’s leaders as Western puppets acting against their country’s interests.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Thursday that President Biden will likely speak directly with Putin soon, and the Kremlin said Friday that leaders would hold a video call next week.

“We have been aware of Russia’s actions for a long time and I expect we will have a long discussion,” Biden told reporters Friday night when asked about the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine.

A National Security Council spokesman said Friday night the United States did not seek conflict with Russia and believed diplomacy was the best way to avert a crisis and prevent US-Russia relations from escalating further.

US officials have vaguely hinted in recent days that they have specific reasons for their heightened concerns about an invasion of Russia’s neighbor, a former Soviet republic that Mr Putin considers a rightful part of Russia.

Speaking to reporters in Stockholm, Sweden on Thursday, Mr Blinken referred to “evidence that Russia has planned significant aggressive steps against Ukraine.” Later that day, General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to reporters in his official plane about “warnings from an intelligence agency’s point of view” and said, “There’s plenty to worry about now. ”

Mr Blinken and other US officials have consulted with US allies in Europe to retaliate against possible Russian aggression against Ukraine, where Mr Putin has long supported a pro-Moscow separatist insurgency and annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

Mr Blinken said this week the United States would respond to “Russian aggression against Ukraine” with “major economic measures that we have not taken in the past”, but gave no further details.

Mr Blinken conveyed that warning at a Thursday meeting in Stockholm with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. But it is unclear whether Mr Putin can be deterred by such threats.

Speaking to reporters after meeting Mr. Blinken, Mr. Lavrov seemed to mock the threat, noting that the United States has repeatedly sanctioned Russia in new and different ways in recent years.

“There’s always a first time,” Mr. Lavrov said. “There were other sanctions that they have not taken in the past.”

Julian E. Barnes reporting contributed.

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