WASHINGTON – The buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine has left U.S. officials perplexed, muddying the Biden administration's response.
Some Republican lawmakers have been pressing the U.S. to step up military support for Ukraine. But that risks turning what may be mere muscle-flexing by Russian President Vladimir Putin into a full-blown confrontation that only adds to the peril for Ukraine and could trigger an energy crisis in Europe.
But a weak U.S. response carries its own risks. It could embolden Putin to take more aggressive steps against Ukraine as fears grow he could try to seize more of its territory. And it could cause more political damage for President Joe Biden at a time his popularity is dropping.
“We're not sure exactly what Mr. Putin is up to,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday. A week earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We don't have clarity into Moscow's intentions, but we do know its playbook.”
Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat and member of the House Intelligence Committee, said better understanding Putin's intentions was critical “to avoid the mistakes that have started great wars.”
Any U.S. response must be calibrated to avoid being “an appeaser or a provocateur,” he said.
Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and an ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and Russian-backed rebels in the region known as Donbas has left an estimated 14,000 dead. Now, Ukraine says an estimated 90,000 Russian troops have massed near the border.
The buildup could be a prelude to another Russian invasion. Speaking to Ukraine's foreign minister this month, Blinken said Putin's “playbook” was for Russia to build up forces near the border and then invade, “claiming falsely that it was provoked.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that the alliance is seeing an “unusual concentration” of Russian forces along Ukraine's border, warning that the same type of forces was used by Moscow in the past to intervene in neighboring countries.
Though U.S. officials don't believe an invasion is imminent, Putin also has ramped up his dismissal of an independent Ukraine. A lengthy essay the Kremlin published in July asserts that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and the “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
But the moves could also be saber-rattling to prevent Ukraine from growing closer to the West or being admitted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Putin strongly opposes. It's not clear whether Russia would risk invading Ukraine, setting off a far more difficult war, or want to occupy hostile territory.
A similar Russian military buildup in the spring did not lead to an invasion, though lawmakers and officials say they are more concerned now, citing U.S. intelligence that has not been made public.
Russia denies it has aggressive motives, insisting it is responding to increased NATO activity near its borders and the strengthening of Ukraine's military.
The U.S. has sent ships into the Black Sea as part of NATO activity alongside Ukraine and in recent weeks has delivered military equipment as part of a $60 million package announced in September. Since 2014, the U.S. has committed to spending more than $2.5 billion to help Ukraine strengthen its defense.