In announcing new sanctions on Thursday, the US accused Russia of recruiting current and former Ukrainian government officials in an attempt to seize control of the Ukrainian government.
“Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials in preparation for an occupying Russian force to take over the government of Ukraine and control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure,” the Treasury Department said in a statement, as it imposed sanctions on four current and former Ukrainian officials it said were involved in Kremlin-directed influence operations to destabilize Ukraine.
According to the Treasury, the four individuals – two of whom are current members of Ukraine’s Parliament – were acting under the direction of a Russian intelligence service sanctioned by the US and played “various roles” in Russia’s “global influence campaign to destabilize sovereign countries in support of the Kremlin’s political objectives.”
According to the Treasury, Russia recruits Ukrainian officials in high-level positions to gain access to sensitive information, threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty, and then use these officials to incite unrest ahead of a potential Russian invasion.
The action taken on Thursday is “separate and distinct” from the “broad range of high impact measures” for which the US is prepared if Russia invades Ukraine, according to the department.
The sanctions, according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, are “in line with other actions that we have taken to target Russian disinformation campaigns.”
“The United States will continue to take steps, including actions like this one and in collaboration with the Ukrainian government, to identify, expose, and undermine Russia’s destabilization efforts in Ukraine,” he added.
The Biden administration has warned Russia that it could invade Ukraine at any time, but it is also pursuing diplomatic efforts to persuade Moscow to deescalate the situation, with Blinken set to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday to see if there’s opportunity for common ground.
US approves transfer of American weapons from Baltic states to Ukraine
According to an administration official, a State Department official, and a congressional aide familiar with the matter, the State Department informed Congress that it had approved export licenses for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, allowing the countries to transfer US-origin weapons to Ukraine.
The approvals, which came in recent days, indicate that the US is looking to impose a greater cost on Russian President Vladimir Putin if the invasion goes ahead. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he expects Putin to “move in” to Ukraine, and Blinken said earlier this week that the Kremlin plans to send more troops to the Ukrainian border.
The weapons include highly sought-after American anti-aircraft weapons systems from Latvia and Lithuania, which would assist Ukraine in repelling Russian aircraft, which some officials and experts believe would lead the way in the early stages of a Russian invasion. Estonia has been given permission to transfer anti-tank Javelin guided missile systems, which the US has previously provided to Ukraine.
It is unclear when the weapons will arrive in Ukraine; a senior administration official stated that the timing – as well as the cost to Ukraine – would be up to the countries that were granted approval.
According to the same official, the Biden administration is also working to transfer control of five Russian-made helicopters to Ukraine. A notification has been sent to Congress regarding the helicopters, Mi-17s, which are already in Ukraine for maintenance after being withdrawn from Afghanistan during the withdrawal.
When asked about the transfer of export licenses, the State Department cited close coordination with European countries and Ukraine.
“European allies have everything they need to move forward with additional security assistance from Ukraine in the coming days and weeks,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We are working closely with our Ukrainian partners and NATO Allies on this, as well as utilizing all available security cooperation tools, such as expediting authorized transfers of US origin equipment from other allies and partners through our Third Party Transfer process and Excess Defense Articles from DoD inventories, among other mechanisms.”
Blinken visited Ukraine earlier this week, where Ukrainian officials thanked him for US security assistance. However, Ukrainians have frequently sought additional military assistance.
The Biden administration quietly approved an additional $200 million in security assistance to Ukraine in late December, authorizing the shipment of defensive equipment including small arms and ammunition, four people familiar with the matter confirmed to CNN at the time.
However, after a series of diplomatic meetings between US, NATO, European, and Russian officials ended last week with no significant breakthroughs, the Biden administration began considering increased military support for Ukraine amid growing evidence that Russia is preparing for an invasion. Biden has ruled out sending US combat troops to Ukraine to defend the country from a Russian invasion.
Russia has deployed approximately 100,000 troops to its border with Ukraine, which Blinken said on Wednesday Russia could double in “relatively short order.” Russia intends to conduct joint military exercises with Kremlin ally Belarus, raising further concerns in Ukraine about the emergence of a new potential front line along its northern border.
Biden admitted on Wednesday that NATO is divided over how to respond to a “minor incursion” from Russia, an admission that stunned and shocked Ukrainian officials in Kyiv.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that Biden’s remarks could be interpreted as an invitation to Moscow to launch an attack.
“Speaking of minor and full incursions or full invasion, you cannot be half-aggressive. You’re either aggressive or you’re not aggressive,” Kuleba told the newspaper. “We should not give Putin the slightest chance to play with quasi-aggression or small incursion operations. This aggression was there since 2014. This is the fact.”
In a seeming response to Biden’s remarks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday wrote on Twitter, “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.”
Asked about Biden’s remarks distinguishing the consequences of a “minor incursion” against Ukraine by Russia, Blinken said on Thursday, “if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border and commit new acts of aggression against Ukraine, that will be met with a swift, severe, united response from the United States and our allies and partners.”
Blinken, who has been traveling Europe this week for meetings on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, also dismissed suggestions that the US and allies’ providing defensive military equipment to Ukraine escalates tensions with Russia.
“The idea that the provision by the United states, by European countries, by NATO, of defensive military equipment to Ukraine is somehow provocative or cause for Russia’s actions has the world upside down,” he told reporters during a press conference in Berlin.
He added that the US is trying to ensure that “Ukraine has the means to defend itself, and that might perhaps deter further aggression by Russia.”