The Pentagon is working on a plan to provide Ukraine with battlefield intelligence that could help the country more quickly respond to a possible Russian invasion, senior administration officials said.
The assistance, if approved by President Joe Biden, is sure to raise the ire of Russia, which has portrayed any U.S. military aid to Ukraine as provocative.
But as more than 100,000 Russian troops mass at the Ukrainian border, the Biden administration is seeking to project support for the former Soviet republic’s independence from Moscow and its territorial integrity. The United States and its allies have warned President Vladimir Putin of Russia that an invasion would bring both economic pain for his country, in the form of sanctions, and military losses.
Officials in the Biden administration have moved cautiously to avoid escalating the situation, even as they consider ways to better assist Ukraine and deter Russia.
A small Pentagon team recently visited Ukraine to evaluate the country’s air defense needs, John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesperson, said Monday. On Tuesday, Karen Donfried, the State Department’s top diplomat for Europe, told reporters that the United States would increase its military assistance to Ukraine if Russia invaded.
The United States has been supplying Ukraine with anti-tank guided missiles called Javelins since 2018; Biden authorized an additional Javelin delivery this fall as part of a $60 million military aid package.
The list of ideas being drawn up at the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House include redirecting to Ukraine helicopters and other military equipment once allocated for the Afghan military, officials said. The administration is also considering sending additional cyberwarfare experts to Ukraine. The United States and Britain have sent some experts to shore up defenses in case Putin launches a cyberstrike on Ukraine either in advance or instead of a ground invasion.
But the proposal at the Pentagon for “actionable” intelligence is potentially more significant, two U.S. officials said. The information would include images of whether Russian troops were moving to cross the border. Such information, if shared in time, could enable the Ukrainian military to head off an attack.
The Biden administration has recognized how important real-time awareness is for the survival of Ukraine’s government. U.S. intelligence agencies are already giving Kyiv access to more material than they had before the Russian military buildup, said a person briefed on the administration’s actions. The person and U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the plans.
“The number one thing we can do is real-time actionable intelligence that says, ‘The Russians are coming over the berm,’” said Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the Obama administration. “We tell them, and they use that to target the Russians.”
She said that “we’ve been nervous about that in the past.”
One potential problem with providing actionable intelligence, U.S. officials acknowledge, is that it could lead Ukraine to strike first — the sort of scenario Western officials believe Putin has been trying to sell to the Russian public.
This past summer, Putin argued in an article that Russians and Ukrainians were one people and said that the formation of a Ukrainian state hostile to Moscow was comparable “in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”
He has continuously painted the Ukrainian government as the aggressor, backed by the West. But if Russian tanks are moving over the border, and Ukraine targets them, it will be hard for Putin to make that argument. Russian disinformation campaigns have attacked the Ukrainian government and accused President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of creating a humanitarian crisis in the country’s east, where Ukrainian government forces have been battling Russian-led separatists for years, Western officials said.
Last Friday, Putin codified what he has long been saying to American and European officials in meetings, demanding that the United States and its allies halt all military activity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in a Cold War-like security arrangement. That the demand came when Russian troops were at Ukraine’s border explicitly linked the deployment to a possible invasion, U.S. officials said.
U.S. and NATO officials privately dismissed the main demands of the Russian proposal, which came in the form of a draft treaty suggesting that NATO should offer written guarantees that it would not expand farther east toward Russia and halt all military activities in the former Soviet republics.
But the United States also set up talks with Moscow, for January, during which officials said they would tackle the range of complaints detailed by Russia. On Wednesday, Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov. Ukraine has sought NATO membership for years — a move that would enrage Russia — but despite the delay, the United States has balked at taking Ukraine’s accession off the table.
For the Biden administration, the escalating situation on the border is demanding a balancing act. With Moscow spooked by the Ukrainian government’s perceived anti-Russia policy shift, Putin wants to put pressure on the government, while also exposing the limits of what the United States and Europe are willing to do for Ukraine, officials said.
The Biden administration, officials say, must strike the right note: by bolstering aid to the Ukrainian military to discourage an invasion but not to the point where Russia feels threatened and decides it must to act.
After Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution in 2014, “little green men” — soldiers without insignia — helped Moscow seize Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Ukraine has had the seven years since then to prepare for a fight, and Russian officials know any incursion will be met with stiff resistance.
If Putin launches an attack right after Orthodox Christmas in early January — which U.S. and allied intelligence officials believe is the earliest it would come — Russia would have more than two months while the ground is frozen and tanks can effectively move in Eastern Ukraine. Some intelligence officials believe the muds of late March in Ukraine could be the country’s best defense.
Whenever he chooses to cross the border, Putin will “have the likelihood of sudden loss of life, in significant enough numbers that they can’t be smuggled back to Russia under the cover of night,” Farkas said. “The Russians have been trying to sell any conflict as a reaction, but the Russian people do not want to fight their Ukrainian brothers and sisters. You can only fool them so long.”
Military experts say that the Russian army could quickly overwhelm the Ukrainian military, even one that is backed by the United States and its European allies. But a Ukrainian insurgency would most likely take hold, bogging down the Russian military for years.
“You need to have that in mind when you push the trigger to do something,” Gen. Micael Byden, supreme commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, said in an interview. “It won’t be over in weeks.”