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U.S., Russia Move Closer to Talks Over Ukraine as Moscow Amasses Troops

The U.S. and Russia moved closer to convening talks over tensions surrounding Ukraine, though American officials warned that Moscow is continuing to build up its forces for possible military action against its neighbor.

Russian President

Vladimir Putin

said Thursday that U.S. and Russian officials would meet in January in Geneva. The U.S. has also proposed talks, and the two sides are still trying to sort out differences over how to structure the negotiations and which channels to use, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. has threatened tough measures, including harsh economic penalties and reinforcing North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s capabilities on the territory of its Eastern European members to deter a Russian attack. Nonetheless, Biden administration officials said they are ready to hold talks to de-escalate tensions.

At the same time, U.S. officials said that the number of Russian battalion tactical groups near the border with Ukraine has grown to 53—up from an estimated 50 in recent weeks—and that the troop buildup is continuing. Each group has around 800 troops.

A U.S. official said that intelligence analysts now see a Russian intervention as more likely than they did several weeks ago. “The thinking is along those lines,” the official said.

A Ukrainian service member in the Donetsk region.



“They’re definitely on the move,” another U.S. intelligence official said of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border.

Mr. Putin’s troop buildup and talk of negotiations are leaving U.S. analysts wondering if Moscow is trying to pressure President Biden into concessions or is preparing military action in the expectation that its demands won’t be met. Repeated Biden administration calls for Russia to de-escalate have gone unheeded.

A military buildup along the Ukrainian border is further straining ties between Russia and the U.S., after clashes over cybercrime, expulsions of diplomats and a migrant crisis in Belarus. WSJ explains what is deepening the rift between Washington and Moscow. Photo Composite/Video: Michelle Inez Simon

President Biden sought to lay the groundwork for what he called a stable and predictable relationship with Russia during his June summit meeting in Geneva with Mr. Putin.

That plan was set back when Russia began moving additional forces near Ukraine in November. Earlier this month, the Kremlin demanded that NATO rescind its past statements that Ukraine and Georgia will one day join the alliance and end military ties with those former Soviet republics and other areas that were part of the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Biden has rebuffed those demands, which U.S. officials say would amount to a Russian sphere of influence along its periphery, while offering to talk about both sides’ security concerns.

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In a briefing for reporters Thursday, a senior administration official expressed hope that talks could begin in early January. He reiterated that a Russian attack would also lead to stringent economic sanctions, more military equipment for Ukraine and a reinforced military posture on NATO’s eastern flank.

“If Russia goes ahead with what may be under way, we and our allies are prepared to impose severe costs that would damage Russia’s economy and bring about exactly what it says it does not want: more NATO capabilities, not less, closer to Russia, not further away,” the official said.

So far, Russia has given no signs that it is deterred by the threats. Speaking at his annual press conference in Moscow on Thursday, the Russian president said that Russia’s actions would depend “on the course of the negotiations” and “the unconditional provision of Russia’s security, today and in the future.”

“Further movement of NATO eastward is unacceptable,” Mr. Putin told the nearly four-hour press conference. “They are on the threshold of our house. Is it an excessive demand—no more attack weapons systems near our home? Is there something unusual about this?”

The bellicose tone of recent statements by Mr. Putin and some Russian officials has led some analysts to conclude that the threat of sanctions hasn’t been a deterrent and that Moscow is preparing its public for a possible military intervention.

“Economic punishment won’t deter Russia”

— Jeffrey Edmonds, a top Russia adviser in the Obama administration when Russia annexed Crimea

Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, annexing Crimea and fomenting a separatist rebellion in the eastern region of Donbas. Since then, the U.S. has imposed Ukraine-related sanctions on about 735 persons, including about 75 designations for activities beyond Ukraine, according to the Congressional Research Service. All of these “have barely made a dent,” said a former official, who worked on Russia policy for the Obama administration.

“Economic punishment won’t deter Russia,” said Jeffrey Edmonds who was a top Russia adviser in the Obama administration when Russia annexed Crimea. “From their perspective, no amount of monetary punishment makes up for the existential crisis of the U.S. military sitting on their borders.”

Russia has massed troops near Ukraine that U.S. officials estimate number around 100,000 and project that could reach 175,000 for an invasion, with the battalion tactical groups operating as front-line forces.

Biden administration officials say that their sanctions would be far tougher than those imposed in the past and have sought to drive that message home to Moscow. Mr. Biden said that he has told Mr. Putin that the sanctions his administration is preparing are “like none he’s ever seen.” But U.S. officials haven’t publicly spelled out what sanctions have been coordinated with allies.

Fixing a date and venue for the talks has also been an issue. The Russian side initially proposed direct talks with the U.S.

Russia and U.S.

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The U.S., however, has sought to avoid the impression that discussions over what could amount to a new division of Europe into spheres of influence would take place without the involvement of American allies. The administration has proposed that the talks be carried out in three existing channels: bilateral negotiations in Geneva and parallel discussions in the NATO-Russia Council—a forum for addressing security concerns—and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organization that mandates issues like arms control, human rights and fair elections.

—Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.

Write to Michael R. Gordon at [email protected], Vivian Salama at [email protected] and Ann M. Simmons at [email protected]

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