Washington: The US is raising the alarm with European Union allies that Russia may be weighing a potential invasion of Ukraine as tensions flare between Moscow and the bloc over migrants and energy supplies.

With Washington closely monitoring a buildup of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border, US officials have briefed EU counterparts on their concerns over a possible military operation, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

Russian tanks.Credit:Bloomberg

The assessments are believed to be based on information the US hasn’t yet shared with European governments, which would have to happen before any decision is made on a collective response, the people said. They’re backed up by publicly available evidence, according to officials familiar with the administration’s thinking.

Russia says military deployments on its territory are an internal matter and it denies any aggressive intentions, while accusing the US of provocation by sailing warships in the Black Sea close to its territory this week.

Similar tensions erupted in the spring when the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation accused Russia of massing as many as 100,000 troops, tanks and warplanes near the border with Ukraine.

A long-range Tu-160 bomber of the Russian Aerospace Forces takes-off to patrol in the airspace of Belarus from an air field in Russia.Credit:AP

The crisis eased after US President Joe Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin and offered a summit that took place in June.

White House officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Putin, Merkel speak

Russia’s latest movement of troops and tanks toward Ukraine spurred CIA Director Bill Burns to visit Moscow this month, where he spoke by phone with Putin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also asked Putin in a call Wednesday to use his influence with Russia’s ally Belarus to defuse a crisis over thousands of Middle East migrants seeking to cross the border with Poland into the EU. Putin declined.

Merkel and Putin spoke again on Thursday about Ukraine and Belarus, the Kremlin said in a statement. The Russian leader criticised Ukraine’s alleged use of combat drones in violation of a previous agreement and American military activity in the Black Sea, according to the statement.

The US warning over Ukraine comes on top of the more recent standoff between Poland and Belarus, a close Russian ally. And it is playing out amid uncertainty over increased Russian gas supplies to Europe despite Putin’s pledge to ramp up deliveries from this week to ease an energy crunch. He’s pushing for European regulators to give swift approval to operate the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a project the US and Ukraine opposed as a security risk.

Russia doesn’t intend to start a war with Ukraine now, though Moscow should show it’s ready to use force if necessary, one person close to the Kremlin said. An offensive is unlikely as Russian troops would face public resistance in Kiev and other cities, but there is a plan to respond to provocations from Ukraine, another official said.

With the West preparing fresh sanctions against Belarus over what it sees as a manufactured migration crisis, President Alexander Lukashenko threatened on Thursday to shut down a key pipeline carrying Russian gas to the EU if Poland closes their border. “I would recommend the leadership of Poland, Lithuanians and other empty-headed people to think before speaking,” he said.

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed Ukraine extensively during talks in Paris Wednesday, a US official said. Belarus is part of the same security context, the official said.

Russia rejects claims

Russia has orchestrated the migrant crisis between Belarus and Poland and the Baltic States to try to destabilise the region, two US administration officials said.

US concerns about Russian intentions are based on accumulated evidence and trends that carry echoes of the run-up to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, another administration official said.

Russian officials rejected the accusations.

“Russia has nothing to do with what is happening at the border of Belarus and Poland,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Thursday.

While US and Russian general staffs are in constant contact, the presence of American navy vessels in the Black Sea close to Russia is “absolutely” a matter of concern for Putin, Peskov added.

The information US officials shared on Russia at the recent meetings in Brussels was unsettling, said one of the people familiar. Another person emphasised that there’s no way of knowing Moscow’s true intentions, and what its next move might be or when.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday in Washington, appeared to suggest the US had shared at least some new information with him.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visiting troops. “I hope now the whole world clearly sees who really wants peace and who is concentrating almost 100,000 troops on our border”.

“What we heard and saw today in Washington, DC corresponds to our own findings and analysis, adds some new elements which allows us to get a better, more comprehensive picture,” Kuleba said at a joint news conference with Blinken.

Ukraine and Russia have been in conflict since Putin responded to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that ousted the pro-Moscow president by seizing Crimea. Russia also backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people.

According to defence-intelligence firm Janes, the recent Russian deployment has been covert, often taking place at night and carried out by elite ground units, in contrast to the fairly open buildup in the spring.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who was also in Washington on Wednesday, said that she and Biden discussed Ukraine and their full support for its territorial integrity.

Ukraine has declared its ambition to join the EU and NATO, to Moscow’s fury.

Bloomberg

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