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US escalates pressure on Russia, approving new arms and accusing it of plot against Ukraine

(WASHINGTON) — Ahead of a key meeting on Friday between the U.S. and Russia, the Biden administration on Thursday pushed a full-scale campaign to pressure Moscow as Russian leader Vladimir Putin weighs a possible attack on its neighbor Ukraine.

The U.S. approved its NATO allies in the Baltics to provide additional arms to Ukraine, including critical anti-aircraft missiles that escalate U.S. support. The U.S. Treasury sanctioned four Ukrainian officials it accused of working with Russian intelligence, including to form a new government backed by Russian occupying forces. The State Department blasted a Russian disinformation campaign it said was part of its “pretext” to invade Ukraine and “divide the international reaction to its actions.”

One day before his sit-down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to push back on Russia’s narrative and make clear just how high the stakes are in the standoff.

“It’s bigger than a conflict between two countries. It’s bigger than Russia and NATO. It’s a crisis with global consequences, and it requires global attention and action,” the top U.S. diplomat said in Berlin, hours after meeting his German, French, and British counterparts to coordinate a response.

That coordination has had tremendous doubt cast on it after President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the NATO alliance was not united about how to respond to aggression from Russia that fell short of an all-out attack on Ukraine — an uncomfortable truth that U.S. and NATO officials have tried to paper over for weeks.

After the White House scrambled to clean that up, Biden himself clarified on Thursday, “If any — any — assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion. But — and it will be met with severe and coordinated economic response that I’ve discussed in detail with our allies.”

But the challenge remains of what the U.S. and its allies will do if Russia attacks Ukraine with the same gray-zone tactics it has used for the last eight years, as it annexed Crimea, launched a war in eastern Ukraine, and began a slow-motion annexation of those provinces.

That war, which has killed approximately 14,000 people, rages on in fits and starts on the frontlines — and in cyberspace. Ukrainian government websites were hacked in “”the largest cyberattack on Ukraine in the last four years,” a Ukrainian cyber official said Wednesday, and Moscow has launched a “disinformation storm” portraying Ukraine as the aggressor and trying to “build public support for a further Russian invasion,” a senior State Department official said Thursday.

The Kremlin’s campaign to destabilize its smaller, democratic neighbor allegedly includes spies on the ground, collecting information and even plotting to form a new Ukrainian government.

“Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force,” the U.S. Treasury said in a statement.

The U.S. has sanctioned two sitting members of Ukrainian parliament, Taras Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn, who it accused of furthering a plot by the FSB, Russia’s main security agency and the successor of the KGB. The agency, which Biden said Wednesday has forces on the ground in Ukraine, is “destabilizing the political situation in Ukraine and laying the groundwork for creating a new, Russian-controlled government in Ukraine,” Treasury added.

In the face of that effort, the U.S. is hoping that transparency can undercut any pretext Russian operatives or their Ukrainian colleagues may create — just as the White House last week accused the Kremlin of positioning operatives trained in urban warfare and explosives and planning a possible “false-flag” operation.

Russia has denied that, calling it “complete disinformation.” It has said repeatedly it does not plan to attack the former Soviet state, even as Putin warned that his demands, including barring Ukraine from joining NATO, be met or Russia will take “military technical” measures.

The U.S. is taking its own military measures, approving the transfer of more weaponry to Ukraine — this time from Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, a State Department spokesperson confirmed, while declining to say what weapons exactly.

But a Lithuanian Ministry of Defense source told ABC News the country was given the green light to transfer to Ukraine Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger portable surface-to-air missiles. The Baltic state wanted to send the weapons even earlier, but because they were originally U.S. provided, it needed American approval, which only came during consultations Wednesday, the source said.

Stingers are a kind of man-portable air-defense system, or MANPAD, where an individual soldier can carry the weapon and use it to down fighter aircraft. Javelins, which the Trump administration provided after the Obama administration had refused, have become an important weapon for Ukraine to pierce Russian-made tanks, which could come rolling across the border in an invasion .

Ukraine’s military capacity still pales in comparison to Russia’s overwhelming military superiority, and it’s unclear how many missiles are being provided. Lithuania has only 54 of the missiles in its inventory and only eight launchers from which to fire them from, meaning the amount provided to Ukraine will likely be even lower.

Still, Stingers in particular represent a symbolic threshold that previous administrations had not crossed. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who was in Kyiv earlier this week as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation, warned Thursday that in this “very fragile time… it would not be helpful to give Putin an excuse to invade Ukraine, so I think we’ve got to be very thoughtful about how we address some of these issues like a missile system.”

Russia has already warned that it sees any Western weapons provided to Ukraine as a threat, especially after the U.S. announced $200 million in new military aid ($650 million total over the last year) and the United Kingdom announced it provided anti-tank missiles.

Russia, however, has warned that it sees any Western weapons provided to Ukraine as a threat.

“We underline the necessity of ceasing boosting the war-like Ukrainian regime with arms deliveries … and a lot else that represents a direct threat for us,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday.

But Blinken pushed back on that Thursday in a major speech, disputing the Russian narrative and making clear Moscow is the aggressor.

“On its face, that’s absurd. NATO didn’t invade Georgia, NATO didn’t invade Ukraine – Russia did,” he said, adding NATO neighbors account for six percent of Russia’s borders and have 5,000 allied troops in those countries, while Russia has massed 20 times that around Ukraine.

There has been tense speculation about whether Putin will attack Ukraine, with Biden saying Wednesday he believes the strongman leader will “move in.” But Blinken said Thursday the U.S. still believes he has not made up his mind yet, but added his animus towards Ukraine has long been known.

“He’s told us repeatedly – he’s laying the groundwork for an invasion because he doesn’t believe that Ukraine is a sovereign nation,” Blinken said.

That argument has been a key part of Russia’s disinformation ecosystem, which has been in overdrive in recent weeks, according to senior State Department officials.

Russia’s military and intelligence entities have deployed 3,500 posts per day in December — an increase of 200 percent from November — as they seek to “create conditions conducive to success of attempted aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere and to divide the international reaction to its actions,” a senior State Department official told reporters.

“These are not just public statements from Russia’s MFA accounts … These are broader campaigns using shell companies, false names, and layers to conceal the real backers and their intentions,” a second senior State Department official said, calling it “a war on truth.”

Russia must pull back its propaganda campaign in addition to its troops on Ukraine’s borders, the official added, echoing previous U.S. calls for de-escalation to give diplomacy a shot.

Whether or not diplomacy has a shot will be tested again Friday in Geneva, where Blinken and Lavrov will meet. A senior State Department official said earlier in the week that the meeting itself is a sign the door to diplomacy remains open, but the two sides continue to talk past each other.

The two diplomats will “discuss draft agreements on security guarantees,” Russia’s embassy in Washington tweeted Thursday – a reference to its demands that NATO bar Ukraine from joining and pull back forces from Eastern European member states. But U.S. officials have repeatedly called those “nonstarters,” and Blinken said Wednesday in Kyiv he would not be “presenting a paper” to Lavrov in response.

That has raised fears that Moscow is simply using diplomatic talks to see them fail – yet another pretext before an attack. But regardless of whether there’s a full-born assault, Russia has now effectively shaken Ukraine once again. Its president Volodymyr Zelenskyy tried to reassure the nation late Wednesday, even pushing back on the U.S. warnings that the threat is more urgent.

“These risks have been there for more than one day, and they haven’t grown nowadays – there is just more buzz around them,” he said in a televised address.

ABC’s Dada Jovanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia, Patrick Reevell from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Luis Martinez from the Pentagon.

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