U.S. and NATO allies intensify diplomacy in push to deter Russian ‘lightning raid’ on Ukraine

MOSCOW — Amid mounting concerns of war, the United States and Russia traded provocations on Tuesday with Moscow conducting a wave of military exercises involving warplanes, naval ships and ballistic missiles and Washington delivering a fresh shipment of weapons to Ukraine including antitank missiles and bunker busters.

Leaders on both sides accused the other of recklessly increasing tensions through troop movements and weapons transfers as they acknowledged broad gaps at the negotiating table.

Russia’s military exercises, involving thousands of troops, elite paratroopers and short range ballistic missiles, sent a message of military power designed to keep Moscow’s foes off balance and increase pressure on NATO and Ukraine, said military analysts.

At the Boryspil airport outside of Kyiv, Ukrainian forces unloaded a new shipment of U.S. security assistance, including some 300 javelin missiles, shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapons and other weaponry. Standing beside the weapons in the freezing night air, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Kristina A. Kvien, warned Moscow that Ukrainian troops are “well equipped and they’re ready.”

“Russian soldiers sent to Ukraine at the behest of the Kremlin will face fierce resistance,” she said. “The losses to Russia will be heavy.”

The Pentagon, meanwhile, was preparing to announce that elements of the 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division are among the 8,500 U.S. military forces that could deploy in response to the crisis in Ukraine, according to two U.S. defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans were not yet public. Separately, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the 8,500 figure he first cited Monday could grow.

While answering reporter questions, President Biden added on Jan. 25 that a decision by Russia to invade Ukraine would have “worldwide consequences.” (The Washington Post)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the United States of “building up tension” by putting its forces on high alert. He said, “We are watching these United States actions with deep concern.”

Russia’s military announced exercises and preparedness checks in southern, western and eastern Russia; the Baltic Sea and Transnistria, Moldova, on Ukraine’s western border; and Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. Russian vessels drilled in the Arabian Sea with Chinese ships.

Russia’s Western Military District released video of Iskander short-range ballistic missile crews entering field positions, part of a rapid-fire series of drills in recent weeks.

Within hours, Russia’s military announced another exercise in the south of the country, with aviation units from the Southern Military District and Black Sea Fleet training in joint actions. More than 60 Russian fighter jets and bombers were to take part in the exercise, involving units stationed near Ukraine and in Crimea.

The Russian Defense Ministry also announced the arrival of Pacific Fleet forces in Belarus ahead of a major military exercise with that country next month, further fueling Western alarm over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian officials deny that Russia has plans to invade Ukraine.

Altogether, Russia has massed military equipment and more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine.

Analysts from the Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent Russian open-source investigative outfit that monitors Russia’s military, reported Tuesday the first confirmed video of Russian paratroopers moving closer to Ukraine, calling the development “ominous.”

“In any large-scale attack on the territory of Ukraine, the Airborne Forces should play a decisive role: either in a landing operation to capture strategic objects in the rear, or as shock infantry,” CIT reported.

“The appearance of paratroopers looks all the more ominous because in recent days there has been a continuous buildup of Russian groups in the south of the Bryansk region and in Belarus, in the south of the Gomel region, north of Kyiv.”

The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine has advised Americans to leave the country, due to the “threat of Russian military aggression,” underscoring Washington’s fears that an attack could happen at “any time.” U.S. officials warned more than 800 Americans participating in a virtual town hall meeting Tuesday that the embassy remained open but would not be in a position to evacuate people in the event of conflict.

They warned that “security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders in Russia, occupied Crimea and in Russia controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice.”

On Monday the State Department ordered the families of U.S. diplomats to leave and authorized nonessential personnel to depart. Britain, Australia and Canada also either scaled down operations or told families of diplomats to leave.

The moves come amid a flurry of diplomatic efforts to find a way out of the crisis, but the United States and NATO have firmly ruled out Moscow’s core demand against further NATO expansion, raising fears that Russia could use the failure of diplomacy as a pretext for the “military-technical” response that President Vladimir Putin has threatened.

Russian officials blame “Western aggression” for the crisis, repeatedly warning that Moscow will accept nothing less than an end to NATO’s long-standing open-door policy for new member countries.

Peskov said that Russia was awaiting a written response “this week” from Washington and NATO to its security demands, including that Ukraine and other countries be barred from NATO membership, and that the alliance remove troops and equipment from Eastern Europe.

Negotiations with Washington and NATO over Russia’s demands “were completed,” Peskov said, “and before there is any understanding of how we will continue, we need to get the text.”

He added that Putin would speak to French President Emmanuel Macron before the end of the week, after French officials said Paris would present a de-escalation plan to the Russian leader and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Paris is set to host talks between political advisers Wednesday in an effort to reinvigorate the stalled Normandy Format peace process, involving France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, designed to settle the conflict in the two Russian-backed separatist regions of eastern Ukraine that has been running since 2014.

President Biden, meanwhile, has sought to show a united front with European allies after cracks emerged in recent weeks over which sanctions against Russia should be on the table in case of an attack, and over the supply of defensive weapons to Ukraine. Germany and Sweden are excluding the possibility of supplying weapons to Kyiv.

Biden has insisted there is “total unanimity” among European leaders. According to White House readings of Monday’s call, Biden spoke via video to his counterparts in Europe, which included Macron and Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, and high-ranking NATO and European Union officials. They expressed their desire to find a peaceful solution to current tensions.

They also discussed preparations to impose “massive consequences and severe economic costs” on Russia, as well as moves to reinforce security on NATO’s eastern flank. According to the Western alliance, it is moving additional military equipment into Eastern Europe and sending more fighter jets and ships.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba criticized Germany for blocking arms supplies to Ukraine, calling it a “moment of truth” in relations between Berlin and Kyiv.

“Every crisis brings relations to a moment of truth, and now we have a moment of truth with Germany on a number of fundamentally important issues for the security and future of Ukraine as an independent state and for Euro-Atlantic security in general,” he said, speaking on Ukrainian television.

Germany refused permission for a delivery from Estonia to Kyiv of German-made weapons, which require Berlin’s approval for re-export, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. The German Defense Ministry said Monday that the request is still being reviewed after U.S. State Department cleared Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to ship American-made weapons and missiles to Ukraine.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Jan. 24 that the alliance would continue to take necessary measures “to protect and defend all Allies.” (Reuters)

Macron said during the virtual meeting that de-escalating the situation would require “strong, credible warnings to Russia” and “constant coordination among European partners and allies.” Paris has a tradition of pushing for European diplomacy to be more independent of Washington. Macron expressed his desire to increase the strength of E.U. Some Baltic countries are pushing for more U.S. support and involvement in this crisis.

“The biggest deterrence to Russia is an American flag,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told the Financial Times of London newspaper in an interview published Monday. Tensions in the Baltics are intensifying in tandem with the Ukraine crisis, as Moscow has issued a demand for the removal of all NATO military infrastructure installed after 1997 in Eastern European countries that are now members of the alliance.

In Belarus, which borders Ukraine, a group of hackers calling itself “Cyber Partisans” said Monday they had infiltrated the railway network of the Kremlin-aligned state to “disrupt” the movement of Russian troops. The group, announcing its intrusion in posts on Twitter and Telegram, said it had encrypted the railroad’s “servers, databases and workstations to disrupt its operations” because it facilitates the passage of “occupying troops.”

Amid the escalating tensions, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) requested that the Biden administration brief members of the upper chamber on the Russia-Ukraine situation, a person familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.Calif.), requested a bipartisan briefing.

Stern and Khurshudyan reported from Kyiv. Hudson was reporting from Washington. Rachel Pannett in Sydney, Bryan Pietsch in Seoul, Amanda Coletta in Toronto, and Dan Lamothe, Ashley Parker, Missy Ryan and Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this rep

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