FILE- In this June 1, 2018, file photo, a Russian flags flies on top of a tank on the outskirts of Novorossiysk, Ukraine. Russia has advance warning that it could face the threat of a full-scale military invasion in Ukraine’s energy-rich eastern regions in 2022 and 2023, but it will probably not react unless a worsening war with Washington leads to a breakdown in talks, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)
WASHINGTON — Russian officials have advance warning that it could face the threat of a full-scale military invasion in Ukraine’s energy-rich eastern regions in 2022 and 2023, but it will probably not react unless a worsening war with Washington leads to a breakdown in talks, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.
But the threat is more likely to be followed by a more covert Russian military incursion into Ukraine, possibly through staging an invasion from within Ukraine’s territory, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe Trump administration intelligence on Ukraine.
Much depends on whether President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin can reach an agreement on the status of eastern Ukraine and whether European governments respond to growing Russian aggression, the official said.
It remains unclear whether Russia has made preparations for an offensive, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials. But on a recent visit to Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official said such a counteroffensive is possible if the situation keeps deteriorating. The official asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the discussion.
U.S. officials believe the threat of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine is intended to pressure Ukrainian leaders to accept Russian demands to halt “anti-terrorism” operations and to support Moscow in the standoff with NATO and the West.
The threat and the plans for covert military activity have been discussed for more than a year among U.S. and European officials and Ukrainian and Russian military leaders, according to officials familiar with the intelligence reports.
It was unclear whether President Donald Trump, who has yet to speak with Putin about the crises, is aware of the threats, U.S. officials said.
“Ukraine is facing a bigger and bigger crisis, and this is the type of thing that is going to contribute to the breakdown of the talks,” said American and Ukrainian officials who have discussed the Russian threats. “It’s late to start ‘high-level’ talks.”
The threat of a full-scale invasion would be an extension of the Kremlin’s strategy since early 2014 to take control of the narrow strip of land bordering Russia, where several million Ukrainians are rooted.
An offensive would be “a revenge mission for when Russia tried to annex Crimea,” said Douglas Lute, the assistant secretary of state for Europe. “It would also have a direct geopolitical impact. Russia, with its new aircraft carrier, has even bigger ambitions than it did before.”
In 2014, Russia’s powerful president, Vladimir Putin, sent military units to take over parts of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which was then part of Russia, and separatists in eastern Ukraine. Following diplomatic wrangling, some of the separatists backed by Russia signed a deal with Ukraine’s government to turn down the heat on their insurgency and lay down their arms. But the Kremlin has kept tabs on the remaining combat zones.
The Russian-backed invasion campaign was over before it could gain a broad public support in Russia and it was quickly followed by negotiations led by the Europeans and the United States that culminated in the Minsk agreements in February 2015.