The United States is seeking to reassure Kyiv that Washington’s strategy to prevent a Russian military invasion will work, despite Washington’s refusal to send ground troops to help defend Ukrainian soil.
U.S. President Joe Biden spent nearly an hour and a half on the phone Thursday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, updating Ukraine’s leader on his discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week.
Biden also sought to “underscore our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity … and his commitment to respond with strong measures in the event of a Russian military escalation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
Zelenskiy, posting on Twitter, said the conversation also covered “possible formats for resolving the conflict in Donbas and touched upon the course of internal reforms in Ukraine.”
Biden also spent 40 minutes Thursday on the phone briefing leaders of the Bucharest Nine group — Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia — U.S. allies on NATO’s eastern flank.
Ukraine and Washington’s Eastern European allies have been asking the U.S. for defensive aid and other help in the event Russia decides to invade Ukraine after massing forces along the border.
Ukrainian intelligence officials have said there are at least 90,000 Russian troops along the border. The Washington Post reported last week that U.S. intelligence thought that number could swell to 175,000 ahead of a multifront offensive set to kick off, potentially, early next year.
U.S. defense officials on Thursday declined to comment directly on the numbers but said Russia’s troop presence appeared to be holding steady.
“We’re monitoring it closely, and there still is a very sizable military presence in western Russia, near Ukraine, near Ukraine’s borders,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters. “There’s been no major changes to that posture.”
Biden on Wednesday ruled out the possibility of sending additional U.S. troops to Ukraine to counter a possible Russian invasion, telling reporters, “That is not on the table.”
Pressed Thursday on whether anything less than a show of U.S. military force could get Russia to pull its forces back from the border with Ukraine, the White House expressed cautious optimism that its current strategy and the discussions with Putin were helping.
“Our objective is to make clear the significant and severe economic consequences if Russia were to invade Ukraine, not just from us but from the global community,” Psaki said.
“You would know if they had made the decision to invade. They have not,” she said. “But, again, the ball is in his [Putin’s] court.”
For its part, Russia on Thursday accused the West of exaggerating the importance of its troop movements and warned Ukraine of trying to take matters into its own hands.
“NATO countries pay excessive attention to troop movements on Russian territory,” Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, was quoted as saying by Russia’s Tass news service.
“The media reports on Russia’s alleged preparation for an invasion into Ukraine is a lie,” Gerasimov said. “The deliveries of helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft to Ukraine are pushing the Ukrainian authorities towards abrupt and dangerous steps.”
Despite such warnings, U.S. officials have committed to providing Ukraine and other allies with help, if needed.
“There are options to expand security assistance to assist in Ukraine’s self-defense,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told a virtual security summit Wednesday, pointing to the ongoing provision of ammunition, Javelin anti-tank systems, counter mortar radar and other capabilities.
Other officials said that the final elements of a $60 million security assistance package to Ukraine were being delivered this week.
“We are working with them across the board, and that does include the kinds of anti-armor, defensive weaponry that is central to their planning for how they would try to resist a substantial incursion,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
In the meantime, there is also a possibility for additional, higher-level talks between the U.S., Russia and other NATO countries, something the U.S. president said could happen by the end of the week.
Some analysts said they did not see a lessening of tensions along the Russian-Ukraine border anytime soon.
“What Russia really wants is to have its security interests and its geostrategic interests respected,” Andrew Lohsen, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told VOA.
“The current Russian government is quite sensitive to the NATO threat and is clearly demonstrating a willingness to take extreme measures to address that threat,” Lohsen said. “I think we’re in for a process of very complicated and long negotiations to find where there might be some way to find a diplomatic off-ramp.”
VOA’s Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.