The Biden administration on Wednesday readied plans for U.S. military forces to help evacuate Americans once they cross into Poland should Russia attack Ukraine, preparations that came one day ahead of a major Russian military exercise on Ukraine’s border that some officials fear could provide cover for an invasion.
The White House said there were no plans for the U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, which began arriving in Poland last week, to enter Ukraine. They will handle logistics and other support on the Polish side of the border and assist U.S. citizens who have reached Poland.
“To be clear, we are not planning for a mass evacuation of American citizens from Ukraine,” said a White House official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration deliberations. “President Biden has been clear that we believe Americans in Ukraine would be wise to leave Ukraine.”
Officials are concerned that if hostilities break out between Russia and Ukraine, Americans in Ukraine will have limited options to exit.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby raised the possibility that U.S. soldiers could set up shelters or tents in Poland for evacuees, but he said he didn’t envision an operation in which the military would directly help remove civilians from harm’s way.
Kirby said the State Department has been “exceedingly consistent and clear about warning Americans away from traveling to Ukraine.” Americans still there have the chance right now to “do the right thing — while there is time to do it,” he said.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on the planned role for U.S. troops.
Top Russian military commanders flew into neighboring Belarus on Wednesday for the exercise. It will involve thousands of Russian troops and sophisticated weapons systems. Russia has announced the deployment of S-400 surface-to-air missiles, Pantsir air defense systems and Su-35 fighter jets to Belarus for the exercise. Russian and Belarusian officials have said Russian troops will return to their base after the maneuvers.
U.S. and European officials worry the exercise could put Russian forces in position for a multipronged invasion of Ukraine, with troops invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia in the east.
Ukrainian troops will also begin drills Thursday using armed drones and antitank weapons provided by the United States and other NATO members. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov has said the drills, scheduled to take place through Feb. 20, are a response to the Russian exercises near the border.
Reznikov said Russia has massed 140,000 service members in the region. U.S. officials have said previously that number could rise to 175,000 and that Russia is staging the forces necessary for a full-scale invasion.
Shuttle diplomacy by top U.S. and European officials, including French President Emmanuel Macron’s trips to Moscow and Kyiv this week, have produced no breakthrough.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday that President Biden had spoken to Macron following his meetings and that she expected Biden to speak with other European leaders this week.
She said Russia had not changed its behavior and was taking “escalatory” steps.
In a letter to Biden on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators urged the administration to share more intelligence with Ukraine. “Russia is the aggressor, and we need to arm Ukraine with critical information needed to defend their country,” the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee wrote.
Privately, Ukrainian officials have complained that the United States appears to have relevant intelligence that hasn’t been shared with them about Russia’s planning. One adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the intelligence U.S. officials have provided was of limited value.
But Biden administration officials say they have declassified and made public an extraordinary amount of intelligence, including information gleaned from satellite imagery and other sources. It has revealed Russian troop locations and buildups; alleged Kremlin plotting to replace the government in Kyiv with people aligned with Moscow; and a plot to concoct a pretext for invasion by staging and filming a fake Ukrainian attack on Russia or Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. and British officials have privately expressed frustration that Zelensky and his inner circle are downplaying the Russian threat. But the Ukrainian leader and his advisers have stressed they don’t want to panic Ukrainian citizens and trigger a financial crisis. They continue to press for diplomatic solutions to the crisis.
Russian officials continue to blame the United States and NATO for driving tensions.
“Russia and Belarus have encountered unprecedented threats, the nature and, perhaps, concentration of which are, unfortunately, much larger and much more dangerous than before,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Moscow is demanding a sweeping rewrite of the post-Cold War European security order, including an end to NATO expansion and the removal of alliance forces and troops from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
Washington and NATO have rejected these demands, offering limited, reciprocal measures on arms control and military exercises in written submissions to the Kremlin. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday that Russia is still considering its response to the proposals and that a final decision would be made by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ryabkov said that “everything else depends” on whether the United States and NATO are willing to negotiate seriously on Russia’s demands. But so far, he said, the U.S. proposal to Russia contained “unacceptable statements,” while NATO’s document offered “rudeness and defiant language.”
NATO diplomats said they worry Putin’s demands are so expansive that there is little or no room for a compromise that all sides would find acceptable.
Pannett reported from Sydney and Dixon reported from Moscow. Ashley Parker, Michael Birnbaum and Amy B Wang in Washington contributed to this report.
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