Far from buying into claims the Ukraine showdown is easing, the United States is cranking up its relentless informational warfare campaign against Russia, keeping the world on high alert for a possible invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden administration -- seeking to maintain pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin and to keep its allies united -- is categorically rejecting what it sees as Moscow's misinformation and is warning the threat is only becoming more urgent. A senior official said late Wednesday that Russia had massed another 7,000 troops on the Ukrainian border in recent days, despite the Kremlin's claims that some forces had returned to base in remarks seen as an opening for diplomacy.
"Every indication we have now is they mean only to publicly offer to talk, and make claims about de-escalation, while privately mobilizing for war," the official said, reiterating that Russia could fake an incident as a pretext to attack using what President Joe Biden said Tuesday was around 150,000 troops.
The new US claims represented the latest gambit in a highly unusual public relations campaign using declassified intelligence meant to remove the element of surprise from Putin and to deprive Moscow of the usual advantage it secures with its mastery of disinformation tactics.
Inside Washington, there are few who doubt government claims Putin is ready to invade at any time. But the intensity of US warnings over a period of weeks may soon raise the question of how long Biden can maintain the state of alert, and whether the continued lack of an invasion despite ever-more alarming warnings could open gaps between NATO allies -- and between the US and Ukrainian governments. Such stresses would play directly into Putin's long-term strategic goals.
Both the US and Russia, the world's two greatest nuclear powers, say they are ready to negotiate. But they remain far apart on Putin's demands to rip up existing security arrangements in Eastern Europe with the departure of NATO troops from former Warsaw Pact nations.
The US' game is not without risk, since it might push Putin over the edge -- especially if, as some US officials suspect, he's increasingly prone to a bunker mentality and getting little outside advice and perspective from officials willing to challenge his views.
Waiting on Putin's next move
By definition, in combat waged with propaganda and dueling information, it's hard to know what is really going on.
At this point, it's impossible to judge whether the US is genuinely flushing out preparations for an invasion or whether it is taking Putin's bait by exposing troop movements he is ordering in the knowledge that they'll be highlighted by Washington, and therefore increase the sense of insecurity in Europe and anxiety over what he might do next.
The showdown over Ukraine has become the most serious geopolitical confrontation in Europe since the end of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.
The US will not send troops to Ukraine to directly fight Russians. But Biden has rushed forces to reinforce US NATO allies in Eastern Europe. Putin is effectively holding Ukraine, a sovereign, democratic nation, hostage to demand the western alliance pull back from ex-Soviet satellite states like Poland, Romania and Hungary. And if Russia does march into Ukraine, there could be painful consequences for Americans back home, with rising gas prices and energy prices adding to existing inflationary misery.
The new US warning about secret Russian maneuvers came amid quickening efforts to keep up Western pressure on Moscow. The White House announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference this weekend. The forum, also due to be attended by leading European officials and US lawmakers, is turning into a rallying point for the US and its allies as the NATO alliance faces its most serious test since the fall of the Soviet Union.
"We are in a very decisive moment," the senior US official said, previewing the most high-profile foreign policy mission for the vice president so far.
This week has seen some hope that the crisis could be easing after Russia announced some of its troops were moving away from the border. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken instead Wednesday told ABC News there had been no "meaningful pullback" and that Putin could "pull the trigger" at any time.
"He could pull it today. He could pull it tomorrow. He could pull it next week," Blinken said.
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