The United States alleged that Russian intelligence was recruiting current and former Ukrainian government officials to seize power in Kyiv and cooperate with a Russian occupation force.
The US Treasury on Thursday imposed sanctions on two Ukrainian lawmakers and two former officials it said were involved in the alleged plot, which involved discrediting the current government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“Russia has ordered its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the Ukrainian government and control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with a Russian occupation force,” it said. the Treasury press release accompanying the sanctions.
The claims suggest US intelligence fears Russia is plotting a full-scale invasion, not the “minor incursion” that Joe Biden called a possibility in remarks Wednesday that raised alarm in Kiev.
Online researchers have identified Russian troops and military vehicles just ten miles from Ukraine’s borders, raising the risk that Vladimir Putin could launch a military offensive on short notice.
Local media showed that Russian troops have arrived in the Belarus town of Yelsk and other points near the border with Ukraine as part of joint military exercises due to start next month. Russian forces there include rocket artillery, anti-aircraft systems and possibly elite units such as speznaz.
An investigation by the Conflict Intelligence Team and Radio Svoboda raised questions whether the deployments were just a drill, as some family members said the soldiers had been deploying for months.
In his earlier remarks, Biden seemed to say that if Russia invaded just a small part of Ukraine, the NATO alliance would be split on how to respond. Speaking on Thursday, the US president sought to clarify those comments.
“If collected Russian units cross the Ukrainian border, it’s an invasion,” he said. “Let there be no doubt if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.
Biden added that the United States and its allies should also be prepared to respond if Russia uses “measures other than overt military action to carry out aggression” against Ukraine.
The president was speaking shortly after Zelenskiy complained in a tweet: “We want to remind the big powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor victims and little grief over the loss of loved ones.
The United States has threatened unprecedented sanctions against Russia if it invades, although there are disagreements with European allies, as Biden admitted on Wednesday, over the extent of the punitive measures. European capitals resisted the suggestion that Russia should be cut off from the international electronic payment system, Swift.
The United States, United Kingdom and other allies have also continued to supply arms to Ukraine, in an effort to increase the costs of an invasion and potentially contribute to a Ukrainian insurgency following an invasion.
Despite the threats, Russian forces continued to build up near the Ukrainian border. Short-range ballistic missiles and tanks were pictured heading west in trains from positions in the Russian Far East. Satellite images show a growing number of encampments of men and equipment in the Ukrainian border region, and Russian and Belarusian troops have conducted military exercises, which the United States says are unusually large and carried out without sufficient notice. .
The two MPs on whom the US imposed sanctions were Taras Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn, both members of a pro-Russian party led by Victor Medvedchuk, an oligarch under house arrest in Ukraine since last May, accused of treason .
A former Ukrainian official, Volodymyr Oliynyk, now living in Russia, has a sanction against him for having worked “in the direction of the FSB [Russian intelligence] collect information on Ukrainian critical infrastructure”.
The fourth man named is Vladimir Sivkovich, former deputy secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.
“In 2021, Sivkovich worked with a network of Russian intelligence actors to conduct influence operations that attempted to build support for Ukraine to formally cede Crimea to Russia in exchange for a withdrawal of supported forces. by Russia in the Donbass,” the US Treasury said. .
Voloshyn denied being a Russian asset and said he had never “knowingly” spoken to the FSB or any other Russian spy agency. He said he was an elected lawmaker from an explicitly pro-Russian political party and that his skeptical views in the United States mirrored those of some Ukrainian voters.
Voloshyn said he suspected he was being punished for calling — unsuccessfully — for a parliamentary inquiry into Biden’s son Hunter and his work in Ukraine.
In an interview, Voloshyn called the US accusations against him “strange”. He said he was interviewed by the FBI last summer as he flew to Washington, adding that he had been in regular contact with the US Embassy in Kyiv in the past.
He said he last visited Moscow in November for a national prayer breakfast – his first trip to Russia in two years. “There were several Americans at the same breakfast,” he said. Voloshyn said he knew Kozak but had never met the other two sanctioned Ukrainians.
The other three men could not immediately be reached for comment. Russia has denied plans to invade Ukraine, but has massed more than 100,000 troops along the country’s border.
“There has been a lot of speculation about President Putin’s true intentions, but we don’t really have to guess. He told us that many times. He is preparing the ground for an invasion because he does not believe Ukraine is a sovereign nation,” US Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in a speech in Berlin.
Blinken is due to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva on Friday.
Three rounds of talks between Russia, the United States, NATO and other European states last week made no progress.
The United States and NATO have offered negotiations on limiting missile deployments and military exercises, but Russian officials have demanded sweeping security guarantees, that Ukraine will never join NATO and that alliance will withdraw forces from Eastern European member states that were once part of the communist bloc.