WASHINGTON – US intelligence officials warn allies that there is a short window of time to prevent Russia from launching hostilities in Ukraine, pushing European countries to work with the United States to develop a package of economic and military measures to contain Moscow, US and European officials said.
Russia has yet to decide what it intends to do with the troops it has assembled near Ukraine, US officials said, but the build-up is being taken seriously and the United States does not see it as a bluff.
National Intelligence Director Avril D. Haynes visited Brussels this week to brief NATO ambassadors on US intelligence about the situation and possible Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Ms. Haynes’s trip was long-planned and covered a wide range of issues, but growing concerns about Russia were among the short-term threats discussed, according to officials informed.
The United States is also sharing intelligence with Ukraine. And on Friday, General Mark A. Milli, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to Lieutenant General Valeriy Zaluzhny, the chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, to discuss “regarding Russian activity in the area.” This is stated in a statement from employees.
American and British intelligence are increasingly convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering military action to take control of most of Ukraine or to destabilize the country in order to bring a more pro-Moscow government to power.
In April, US and allied officials sounded the alarm as Moscow builds up forces near its border with Ukraine. But the current build-up, which appears to require more troops and modern weaponry, has raised more fears, especially as Russia has begun blocking Ukrainian drones. The hostilities also intensified after Ukraine used one of its drones to attack a separatist howitzer, forcing Russia to hack into fighters.
“The growth of kinetic conflict is not inevitable, but all the elements are in place,” said Frederick B. Hodges, a former commander of the US Army in Europe and now at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “If we, the West, look like we are not united and ready to work together, then the risk of the Kremlin making a terrible miscalculation increases.”
US intelligence officials told allies that Mr. Putin is disappointed with the peace process launched by France and Germany in 2014 after Russia annexed the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula and instigated a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.
Some former officials say Mr. Putin may be intent on securing the land route between eastern Ukraine and Crimea. And American analysts say Mr. Putin views the next few months as a unique moment for action.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel left the world stage, there was less pressure on Ukraine to make concessions. Without a coalition in Germany, there is little leadership in Berlin.
Rising energy prices have made Europe more dependent on cheap Russian gas supplies, especially as winter gets deeper and Europe’s gas supplies continue to shrink. Fear of losing access to Russian energy could limit Europe’s support for tough sanctions.
Russia has already begun to manipulate energy supplies to Europe, said a Western official from Brussels. When energy prices rise, the official said, Putin feels he has more leeway.
With rising prices and limited supplies, Russia has more money to pay for military operations, current and former officials said.
US officials want to create a “common recipe” for what the US and Europe will take if Russia comes out militarily against Ukraine. While parts of the Russian economy have not been sanctioned, the United States will need to garner support in Europe for the new measures to be effective.
On Thursday, as Mrs. Haynes left Brussels, the Senate confirmed that Julianne Smith would become the next US Ambassador to NATO. Its nomination was delayed by several months by Senator Ted Cruise, a Republican from Texas, making it difficult for America to formulate a unified response to the growing threat to Ukraine.
At NATO, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has issued his own warnings against Russia. Speaking Friday in Berlin, Mr. Stoltenberg described a “large and unusual” concentration of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. “There is an urgent need for Russia to demonstrate transparency in terms of building up its military power, de-escalation and reducing tensions,” he said.
Russia has sent troops to Crimea called Cape Opuk, and more has moved to a former warehouse complex near the Russian city of Pavlovsk. According to a recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the deployment put Russian tanks, howitzers and Iskander short-range ballistic missiles within reach of the Ukrainian border.
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III also said the Russian troop build-up was a concern. “We’re not entirely sure what Mr. Putin is up to, but these movements have definitely caught our attention,” he said.
Growing concerns about Russia’s intentions have emerged after CIA Director William J. Burns traveled to Moscow this month at the behest of President Biden to warn against any action against Ukraine.
US officials have warned Russia that using its forces to intimidate Ukraine or seize territory is unacceptable and will elicit a violent reaction from the West.
While some warned that it was too early to judge Moscow’s reaction, others briefed on the meeting believed that Russia was not taking the threat of a tough response seriously.
Security officials are still grappling with a possible link between the migrant crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border and the buildup of Russian military power on the border with Ukraine.
Security officials did not find direct Russian involvement in the border crisis with Belarus, and some believe that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko planned it with little or no Russian involvement.
On Friday, the Polish government announced that Ms Haynes met in Warsaw with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and other officials to discuss security issues on NATO’s “eastern flank”. According to the government, the meetings were held at the request of the United States.
Mr. Putin has a long history of using drama in neighboring countries to advance his interests. According to a Western official, NATO countries should remember that the Belarusian crisis and the buildup of troops on the border with Ukraine are taking place simultaneously.
“Putin is very fast,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior Pentagon official. “I think he likes entertainment. This plays into his hands. All eyes are fixed on the border with Belarus. In the meantime, he collects what, in his opinion, may be required to enter Ukraine. “
Any response to Russia’s deployment must be carefully considered to avoid escalating the situation and further threatening Ukraine, US and European officials have said.
“We have to be prepared to be tough,” said Mr Townsend. “We don’t need to bomb anything. But we have to be smart about how to display our military power. “