Ukraine could prove “the next Afghanistan” for Russia if it chooses to invade early next year as US and Ukrainian intelligence agencies fear, a senior member of the Senate foreign relations committee warned after news that Joe Biden will speak to Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
Publishing an unclassified intelligence document, the Washington Post first reported US intelligence concerns that Moscow could launch an invasion with as many as 175,000 troops.
Speaking anonymously, an administration official told the paper: “The Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 with a scale of forces twice what we saw this past spring during Russia’s snap exercise near Ukraine’s borders.
“The plans involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armor, artillery and equipment.”
Moscow denies any invasion plan and accuses Ukraine of building up forces in its east, where Russian-backed separatists control territory. Russia does not want Ukraine to join Nato.
On Sunday, speaking to CNN’s State of the Union, the Connecticut Democratic senator Chris Murphy said: “I’ve been in Ukraine six times. I’ve seen the intelligence, the threat is serious. I do think that there’s no substitute for person-to-person diplomacy. And so I hope this virtual meeting between President Biden and President Putin can bear fruit.”
Biden and Putin have had one face-to-face meeting, in Geneva in June. They last talked by phone on 9 July. Diplomats indicated earlier this week that Biden and Putin would talk again. A White House statement released on Saturday said they would “hold a secure video call”.
“The leaders will discuss a range of topics in the US-Russia relationship, including strategic stability, cyber, and regional issues,” the statement said. “President Biden will underscore US concerns with Russian military activities on the border with Ukraine and reaffirm the United States’ support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
“The conversation will indeed take place on Tuesday,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “Bilateral relations, of course Ukraine and the realisation of the agreements reached in Geneva [in June] are the main [items] on the agenda.”
The exact timing of the call was not disclosed.
US-Russia relations have been deteriorating for years, notably with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its 2015 intervention in Syria and US intelligence charges of meddling in the 2016 election won by Donald Trump.
The Biden administration has asked Moscow to crack down on ransomware and cyber crime attacks emanating from Russian soil, and in November charged a Ukraine national and a Russian in one of the worst ransomware attacks against US targets. Russia has repeatedly denied carrying out or tolerating cyber attacks.
Murphy said: “If Russia does decide to move further into Ukraine, it would be a mistake of historic proportions for Moscow. Right now they occupy the eastern flank of the country. That’s a part of the Ukraine that doesn’t have the same sense of Ukrainian nationalism that the rest of the country does.
“Ukraine can become the next Afghanistan for Russia if it chooses to move further. And it’s up to us in the Congress to make clear that we are going to be diplomatic, political, and military partners with Ukraine, that we are going to provide them with increased military systems so that they can defend themselves. and I hope that we take steps in Congress in the next week to make that clear.”
Biden has rejected Russian demands for security guarantees in the region.
“My expectation is we’re going to have a long discussion with Putin,” he told reporters on Friday. “I don’t accept anybody’s red lines.”
Biden also said he and advisers were preparing initiatives aimed at deterring an invasion. The administration has discussed partnering with European allies to impose new sanctions.
Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said Washington was committed to ensuring Ukraine had what it needed to protect its territory, and that there was a lot of space for diplomacy and leadership.
“They’ve invaded before,” Austin said on Saturday. “And so as we look at numbers of forces that are in the border region, as we look at some of the things that are occurring in the information space, as we look at what’s going on in the cyber domain, it really raises our concern.
“We are certainly committed to helping Ukraine defend its sovereign territory.”
James C McConville, chief of staff of the US army, said: “I don’t know what [Russia is] going to do but I am very, very concerned.”
Murphy said: “Right now we have an amendment on the floor of the Senate that would dramatically increase the amount of lethal aid [to Ukraine]. I support it. Republicans right now in the Senate are blocking that amendment from being considered.
“In addition, Republicans are blocking our ambassadors from being confirmed, in particular the EU where a lot of this work will be done to try to bring our allies together. So our Republican colleagues need to understand, this is the threat that many of us believe it to be.”
Earlier on Saturday, Russia said an Aeroflot airliner flying from Tel Aviv to Moscow was forced to change altitude over the Black Sea because a Nato CL-600 reconnaissance plane crossed its flight path. The state airline said flight SU501 carrying 142 passengers had to drop 2,000ft.
The aviation authority, Rosaviatsia, said a smaller CL-650 aircraft flying from the Black Sea resort of Sochi to Skopje also had to change course. It did not say which Nato member the reconnaissance aircraft belonged to.
Russia said on Friday it scrambled fighters to escort two US reconnaissance planes over the Black Sea. The US embassy in Moscow made no immediate comment.