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Russia moves troops and U.S. sends weapons as fear of war mounts in Ukraine

Workers unload military aid delivered as part of the U.S. security assistance to Ukraine at Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv on Jan. 25. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
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MOSCOW — President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin traded provocations Tuesday, with the Kremlin broadcasting a new round of military exercises within striking distance of Ukraine and Washington rushing a fresh shipment of weapons to Kyiv while suggesting thousands of U.S. troops could be deployed soon to shore up allies’ defenses in Eastern Europe.

Officials on both sides accused the other of bringing Europe closer to a full-blown war — an outcome Biden said would have “enormous consequences worldwide.”

“This would be the largest … invasion since World War II,” the president told reporters in Washington. “It would change the world.”

U.S. officials have said there are no plans to increase the U.S. military presence inside Ukraine, where approximately 200 American troops are training and advising Ukrainian forces, but Washington has stepped up other forms of assistance. At Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv on Tuesday, Ukrainian personnel unloaded some 300 Javelin missiles, shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapons and bunker-busters that had come from the United States. 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.”

U.S. officials in Washington said they are coordinating with crude-oil and gas suppliers across Asia, North Africa and the Middle East in the event Moscow cuts off fuel shipments to wary European allies and such supplies need to be found elsewhere. One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under terms set by the White House, said that if Putin takes such measures, the lost gas revenue would hurt Russia more than anyone else. “This is a one-dimensional economy, and that means it needs oil and gas revenues at least as much as Europe needs its energy supply,” the official said.

As Ukraine invasion looms, Europe fears Kremlin will cut off its gas supply

The Pentagon, meanwhile, indicated Tuesday that the 8,500 U.S. military personnel who a day earlier were put on “prepare to deploy orders” may be only a starting point, saying U.S. commanders could reposition some of the 64,000 troops permanently stationed in Europe, should they be needed. Two defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the plans were not yet public, said that elements of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division were expected to be among the first units sent to NATO’s eastern flank if Biden gives the order.

The president said he may forward-deploy U.S. troops “in the near term” because “it takes time” to get them in place. He insisted such a move would not be “provocative,” a claim Moscow has rejected.

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

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

Russia’s latest military exercises — involving thousands of troops, tanks, elite paratroopers and short-range ballistic missiles — are intended to project strength, keep Moscow’s foes off balance and intensify pressure on NATO and Ukraine, military analysts said.

Four maps that explain the Russia-Ukraine conflict

The exercises and preparedness checks announced Tuesday encompass parts of southern, western and eastern Russia; Transnistria, Moldova, on Ukraine’s western border; and Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. Separately, vessels from Russia’s Pacific Fleet drilled with Chinese ships in the Arabian Sea.

Russia’s Western Military District released video of Iskander short-range ballistic missile crews entering field positions. Within hours, officials announced aviation units from the Southern Military District and Black Sea Fleet would train together. More than 60 fighter jets and bombers were to take part in the exercise.

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 invasion of Ukraine. Russian officials have denied they are preparing to attack.

In all, Russia has massed 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” because it follows the movement of Russian military groups into Belarus, north of Kyiv.

Kirill Mikhailov, an analyst for the Conflict Intelligence Team, said the airborne units are considered elite, so “their presence would logically be expected in the event of a real large-scale offensive.”

Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Russia would not conduct a new invasion without those units.

State Department orders diplomats' families to leave U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, citing ‘threat of Russian military action’

The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine has advised Americans to leave the country because of 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 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.

U.S. puts troops on alert and NATO sends ships, fighter jets to Eastern Europe as Russia continues buildup on Ukraine border

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 Russia-backed separatist regions of eastern Ukraine that has been running since 2014.

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 have ruled out supplying Kyiv with weapons.

Biden has insisted there is “total unanimity” among European leaders. Earlier this week, he spoke by video with his counterparts, including Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and top NATO and European Union officials, who expressed their “shared desire for a diplomatic resolution to the current tensions,” according to a White House readout of the call.

They discussed preparations to impose “massive consequences and severe economic costs” on Russia, in addition to moves intended to reinforce security on NATO’s eastern flank.

U.S. officials said Tuesday that they are prepared to use a novel export control to damage strategic Russian industries, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing and civilian aerospace. The measure would limit Russia’s ability to obtain semiconductors, the tiny components on which modern technology depends and that are almost always are made with U.S. tools or designed with U.S. software.

“We use [the measure] to prohibit the export of products from the U.S. to Russia,” said one of the U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Our allies and partners would hit Putin’s strategic ambitions to industrialize his economy quite hard.”

Stern and Khurshudyan reported from Kyiv. Hudson reported from Washington. Pannett reported from Sydney. Bryan Pietsch in Seoul, Amanda Coletta in Toronto, Mary Ilyushina in Moscow, and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

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