The United States does not believe Russian President Vladimir Putin has reached a decision on whether to again attack Ukraine, 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 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 Biden said he planned to send some U.S. troops to Eastern Europe, describing the number as “not too many.”
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 staff and families, and accusing 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 is also stocking blood supplies for wounded 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 operation with Belarus, but 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.”
Zelensky said at a Friday news conference that the evidence 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 has also not recovered to 2014 levels, but World Bank data also show 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 is also a key exporter of energy to Europe — and Putin has attempted 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.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the impasse 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 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, 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.”
While Putin’s relations with Washington are strained, he will meet with world leaders who are more sympathetic to Moscow in the coming days. 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 member to both the European Union and NATO.
Putin is also set to attend the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Beijing next week, in a show of support to Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose regime backed Putin’s efforts in Eastern Europe. The United States and several other Western nations are not sending senior officials to the Winter Games in protest of China’s human rights abuses.