The Biden administration is weighing new options, including providing more arms to Ukraine to resist a Russian occupation, to try to raise the costs for Russian President Vladimir Putin should he decide to invade the country.
The discussions, described by multiple sources familiar with them, reflect a sense of pessimism in the administration following last week’s diplomatic talks with Russian officials that yielded no breakthroughs and as Russia has continued to raise its force levels in the last few days.
In addition to considering how to help the Ukrainian military and government fend off an invasion, the US is evaluating options for bolstering Ukrainian forces’ ability to resist a potential Russian occupation. That includes potentially providing the Ukrainian Army with additional ammunition, mortars, Javelin anti-tank missiles, and anti-aircraft missile systems, which would likely come from NATO allies, a senior US official told CNN.
The news comes ahead of a face to face meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday. A senior State Department official said the scheduled meeting “suggests that perhaps diplomacy is not dead.”
President Joe Biden has said that sending US combat troops to Ukraine to fight a war with Russia is off the table. But special operations forces already rotate in and out of the country to provide training to Ukrainian forces and a senior administration official said it is possible that other agencies could provide some support, likely the CIA. CIA Director Bill Burns traveled to Kyiv last week to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and discuss risks to Ukraine, a US official said.
“We are looking at a range of options to help defend Ukraine,” a senior administration official told CNN. This may include additional defensive arms sales, “advice,” and “helping Ukraine be able to stay in the fight against a larger, conventional Russian military presence.”
The deliberations about supporting a resistance campaign reflect an increasingly pessimistic view inside the administration about Putin’s willingness to invade and occupy large swaths of Ukrainian territory. Russia has increased force levels since Friday, the senior administration official said.
“Let’s be clear. Our view is this is an extremely dangerous situation. We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack in Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. “And what Secretary Blinken is going to go do is highlight very clearly there’s a diplomatic path forward. It is the choice of President Putin and the Russians to make whether they’re going to suffer severe economic consequences or not.”
Right now, military sources familiar with the planning say there has been no official change in guidance from Washington, and officials emphasized that these are early considerations that have not yet been formally presented to the President for approval. Some members of the administration are wary of getting bogged down in an anti-occupation support effort and have argued that US forces should leave if a war erupts.
US officials left the meetings in Europe last week even more pessimistic about what Putin could be planning, and how limited the west’s leverage is to stop it—even with the punishing sanctions and increased NATO presence in eastern Europe currently on the table.
“We can exact some pain, but there is a big difference between exacting pain and actually having leverage,” a senior US official said.
As recently as late last week, Biden administration officials were conducting table-top exercises gaming out all of the possible US and allied policy responses, sources familiar with the planning told CNN. Top US officials also spent much of the weekend in senior-level meetings to discuss the way forward, a senior State Department official said.
The US has continued to say that diplomacy is “crucial” and that talks will hopefully continue. But there have been no details on what the next diplomatic steps look like, and Russia has been drawing down its diplomatic presence in Kyiv in what a US official said was ominous and concerning to the US. Russia’s foreign ministry denied on Tuesday that it had begun evacuating diplomatic personnel, saying “The Russian embassy in Kyiv is operating in a standard way.”
Pentagon officials, meanwhile, have been drawing up options for how the US could help to fuel a sustained resistance campaign in Ukraine and inflict the highest possible costs on Russia in the wake of any invasion, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
The CIA continues to operate an intelligence collection training program in the US for Ukrainian special operators and intelligence officials, current and former officials familiar with the program tell CNN. The program was first reported by Yahoo News.
A CIA spokesman pushed back on any suggestion that the program has helped to train a Ukrainian insurgency in waiting, but former intelligence officials familiar with it say that the program includes the kind of covert paramilitary training needed to collect intelligence in a warzone.
“The purpose of the training, and the training that was delivered, was to assist in the collection of intelligence, not to assist in an insurgency,” a senior intelligence official said.
Putin’s plans still unclear
US officials still don’t know what Putin’s plans are, or whether he has even made up his mind to invade. Some officials who have seen the intelligence say there is evidence Russia is planning to try to take Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and overthrow the government. The deployment of forces from Russia’s Eastern Military District into Belarus on Monday struck many US officials and Russian military analysts as particularly ominous, as have a spate of cyberattacks targeting Ukraine last week.
But others believe it is more likely that Russia will launch a more limited operation in eastern Ukraine aimed at securing a land bridge to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. The US on Friday accused Russia of prepositioning a group of operatives in eastern Ukraine to conduct a false-flag operation, accusing Ukraine of provocations and using it to justify an invasion.
Like within the Biden administration, Ukrainian officials have not concluded that Putin has made up his mind, a Ukrainian official said, adding that the talks in Europe had no perceptible impact on the crisis. Meanwhile, the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders – and in neighboring Belarus – has continued to grow.
“We see that it’s not de-escalating, it’s ongoing,” the official said. “Still not enough to do a full-scale invasion and sustain it but it’s still a lot.”
As part of the build-up, Russia has deployed more aircraft closer to the border, which has raised fears of a significant air component to an eventual invasion. Two to three dozen Sukhov-34 fighter jets have joined helicopters positioned near Ukraine, the official said.
Ukrainian defense officials are in daily contact with US counterparts at the Pentagon, the official said, preparing for a variety of different actions the Russians could take.
“We prepared a response for each scenario,” the official said. “We are going to fight if something happens. Our people are ready to fight. Every window will shoot if [Russians] go [in].”
“Everyone who is willing to fight will do so and will receive a weapon for this, like in 2014,” the official continued, adding that individual “reservists” who have received some training will simply have to sign up at a recruiting office. Asked where the weapons for those reservists will come from, the official said they would come from the NATO-supported Ukrainian stockpiles. “Material support from partners will go to them as well,” he said.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed reporting.