Biden administration considers options from deterrence to diplomacy and wants a NATO meeting next week to discuss common actions

By Michael R. Gordon, Vivian Salama and Ann M. Simmons

Nov. 26, 2021

The Wall Street Journal


The Biden administration plans to use a meeting of NATO foreign ministers to focus on how the alliance should respond to Russian military pressure on Ukraine as the Ukrainian president warned Friday of a possible Moscow-backed coup attempt.

The meeting, which is scheduled to begin on Tuesday, comes amid debate within the alliance’s ranks about how to be firm about the possibility of Russian aggression, as it masses troops near Ukraine, while keeping political channels open to Moscow.

Karen Donfried, the top State Department official for European affairs, said Friday that the U.S. is deeply concerned about “large and unusual” Russian troop movements near Ukraine, which American officials have warned allies could be a prelude to invasion.

She said the U.S. is looking at a range of options and wants to use the NATO meeting to discuss how the alliance can act together.

Although she declined to specify which options are under consideration, they range from more military support for Ukraine to stepped-up diplomacy to de-escalate the conflict, according to U.S. officials.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, accused Russia of backing a plan to overthrow him.

Mr. Zelensky told reporters Friday that he had received information through Ukrainian security services that a coup would be undertaken on Dec. 1-2, according to Ukraine’s national news agency, Ukrinform. He said the Ukrainian government had intelligence as well as audio intercepts in which Russian and Ukrainian conspirators were heard discussing the possible participation of billionaire Ukrainian businessman Rinat Akhmetov in the alleged plot.

Mr. Akhmetov’s spokespeople didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the allegation.

President Biden said Friday he is concerned about the situation in Ukraine and that “we object to anything remotely approaching” the alleged coup plot. He told reporters in Nantucket, Mass., that he would likely talk with Mr. Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Biden administration has yet to spell out what the consequences of Russian aggression would be.

The gathering of NATO foreign ministers, however, offers an opportunity for the West’s premier military alliance to take a unified stance against Russia’s saber rattling. But the alliance operates on the basis of consensus and perceptions of imminence of Russian action within the organization vary.

Karen Donfried, the top State Department official for European affairs, said Friday the U.S. is deeply concerned about ‘large and unusual’ Russian troop movements near Ukraine.

Ukraine, while not a NATO member, will take part in the discussion at the alliance’s meeting of foreign ministers, said Ms. Donfried.

Ahead of the meeting, which takes place in the Latvian capital of Riga, Biden administration officials have discussed varied options should Moscow take military action against Ukraine in the next several months, the U.S. officials said.

Options include steps to strengthen Ukraine’s defenses, including providing more air defenses and other military support, and imposing tougher economic sanctions on Russia.

Other options are designed to reduce the risk of a confrontation with Moscow, including constraining U.S. military exercises in Europe, which the Russians complain are provocative and pausing military aid to Ukraine, the officials said.

“There’s a tool kit that includes a whole range of options,” Ms. Donfried said. “We will begin that conversation of what are the options that are on the table and what is it that NATO as an alliance would like to do together.”

The Biden administration is also considering taking a more assertive role in the “Minsk process”—a diplomatic effort between Ukraine, Russia and Europe to find a solution for the Ukraine crisis, which was triggered in 2014 by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Stepped-up diplomatic efforts could appeal to NATO members who are anxious to keep political channels open with Moscow and might facilitate efforts to forge a common stance within the alliance, former officials said.

The diverse array of options reflects the broader debate over Russia policy within the Biden administration. The Pentagon and State Department have stressed the importance of strengthening deterrence while the White House has looked for ways to maintain a “stable and predictable” relationship with Moscow as Washington focuses on China and domestic issues, U.S. officials say.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke Friday with Andriy Yermak, the head of the presidential administration in Ukraine. Afterward, the White House issued a statement expressing concern about Russia’s military activities and calling on “all sides” to pursue diplomacy to de-escalate tensions.

There is no sense that a Russian invasion is imminent. Rather, the concern is that a substantial force has been positioned near Ukraine, and that more men and material could be rushed in relatively quickly, which would beef up the Kremlin’s military options.

Russia has said that it isn’t planning an invasion. Some current and former U.S. officials worry that Mr. Putin remains deeply suspicious of the West’s intentions and could precipitate a crisis when he calculates that Europe is more dependent on Russian energy, Mr. Zelensky is weak, and NATO is experiencing residual tensions over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“It is a major test for the Biden administration, a test they would have preferred to avoid,” said Daniel Fried, a former ambassador to Poland who served as the top State Department coordinator on sanctions policy from 2013 to 2017.

Mr. Fried said that the Biden administration has done a good job of highlighting concerns and sharing intelligence over Russia’s military moves with European allies. He said that the U.S. should do more by providing additional arms and training to Ukraine forces, preparing sanctions to impose in the event of Russian aggression and stepping up diplomacy that wouldn’t compromise Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“There is a lot of headroom in sanctions, particularly financial sanctions,” he said. “We should prepare sanctions tough enough to hurt, but not so tough that you can’t actually use them.”

Mr. Putin may not have made a final decision on what he intends to do, regional security specialists said, nor does Russia need to mount a full scale invasion to obtain some of its important goals.

Ivan Safranchuk, a professor at Moscow State University of International Relations, said that Mr. Putin may merely be seeking a change in the Ukraine government, led by Mr. Zelensky. Ukraine’s leader has taken an increasingly hard line toward Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions, and has targeted pro-Russian political actors in Kyiv with political and economic sanctions.

Although the U.S. and NATO allies call Mr. Putin’s interference in Kyiv’s political affairs unacceptable, Mr. Putin sees Ukraine and other former Soviet states as part of its sphere of influence, and in the past he has tested the West’s resolve in stopping him there. In 2008, Russia launched an invasion of Georgia after Tbilisi tried to reassert control of the separatist statelet of South Ossetia. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 came after what Moscow regarded as an illegal change of power in Kyiv.


Alan Cullison and Alex Leary contributed to this article.

Write to Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com, Vivian Salama at vivian.salama@wsj.com and Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com.