In this Nov. 10, photo, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba hold a news conference following the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Dialogue talks at the State Department in Washington. The buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine has left U.S. officials perplexed, muddying the Biden administration’s response. Officials acknowledge they don’t have a good understanding of what Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to accomplish. (via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine has left U.S. officials perplexed, muddying the Biden administration’s response.

Some Republican lawmakers have been pressing the U.S. to step up military support for Ukraine. But that risks turning what may be mere muscle-flexing by Russian President Vladimir Putin into a full-blown confrontation that only adds to the peril for Ukraine and could trigger an energy crisis in Europe.

But a weak U.S. response carries its own risks. It could embolden Putin to take more aggressive steps against Ukraine as fears grow he could try to seize more of its territory. And it could cause more political damage for President Joe Biden at a time his popularity is dropping.

Knowing how to strike the right balance would be easier if the U.S. had a better understanding of what Putin was trying to accomplish. But top officials admit they don’t know.

“We’re not sure exactly what Mr. Putin is up to,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday. A week earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We don’t have clarity into Moscow’s intentions, but we do know its playbook.”

Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat and member of the House Intelligence Committee, said better understanding Putin’s intentions was critical “to avoid the mistakes that have started great wars.”

Any U.S. response must be calibrated to avoid being “an appeaser or a provocateur,” he said.

“This is a tough, tough area to try to gain information,” he said. “It’s a challenge that’s as tough or tougher than it’s ever been. It has a pretty serious impact on our ability to make the correct decisions.”

Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and an ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and Russian-backed rebels in the region known as Donbas has left an estimated 14,000 dead. Now, Ukraine says an estimated 90,000 Russian troops have massed near the border.

The buildup could be a prelude to another Russian invasion. Speaking to Ukraine’s foreign minister this month, Blinken said Putin’s “playbook” was for Russia to build up forces near the border and then invade, “claiming falsely that it was provoked.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that the alliance is seeing an “unusual concentration” of Russian forces along Ukraine’s border, warning that the same type of forces was used by Moscow in the past to intervene in neighboring countries.

Though U.S. officials don’t believe an invasion is imminent, Putin also has ramped up his dismissal of an independent Ukraine. A lengthy essay the Kremlin published in July asserts that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and the “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

But the moves could also be saber-rattling to prevent Ukraine from growing closer to the West or being admitted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Putin strongly opposes. It’s not clear if Russia would risk invading Ukraine, setting off a far more difficult war, or want to occupy hostile territory.

A similar Russian military buildup in the spring did not lead to an invasion, though lawmakers and officials say they are more concerned now, citing U.S. intelligence that has not been made public.

Russia denies it has aggressive motives, insisting it is responding to increased NATO activity near its borders and the strengthening of Ukraine’s military.

Speaking on Thursday, Putin said, “It should be taken into consideration that Western partners are exacerbating the situation by supplying lethal modern arms to Kyiv and carrying out provocative military maneuvers in the Black Sea — and not only in the Black Sea but also in other regions close to our borders.”

The U.S. has sent ships into the Black Sea as part of NATO activity alongside Ukraine and in recent weeks has delivered military equipment as part of a $60 million package announced in September. Since 2014, the U.S. has committed to spending more than $2.5 billion to help Ukraine strengthen its defense.

The White House said it hopes to de-escalate tensions. “As we have made clear in the past, escalatory or aggressive actions by Russia would be of great concern to the United States,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council said in a statement.

There has been a flurry of diplomacy in recent weeks. U.S. leaders have met with their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, including a visit by CIA Director William Burns to Moscow during which he spoke to Putin by phone. Germany and France have issued a joint statement affirming support for Ukraine.

Ultimately, the U.S. has few good apparent options to stop Putin were he to press forward.

The Biden administration in April imposed new sanctions on Russia for what it said was Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict as well as allegations that it has abetted cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure and interference in American elections.

Imposing more sanctions is unlikely to influence Putin’s behavior, lawmakers and experts said. The Biden administration in May did waive sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will carry Russian natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.

A group of Republican lawmakers this month called on the U.S. to provide more lethal aid to Ukraine’s military, ramp up intelligence sharing, or deploy a larger presence of its own to the Black Sea. But Russia could quickly counter with more forces.

And Putin could respond to any Western action by limiting energy exports to Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas.

“The traditional tools that nation-states use to govern behavior of other nation-states are not available,” said Douglas Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “The Russians have very little at risk.”

Writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, two analysts said Putin may want to send a message to Washington that it must treat Russia “as a major power that cannot be marginalized on the U.S. agenda.” But the analysts also described Ukraine as Putin’s “unfinished business.”

“That piece of unfinished business is the restoration of Russia’s dominion over key parts of its historic empire,” Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss wrote. “No item on that agenda is more important — or more pivotal — than the return of Ukraine to the fold.”

Trying to seize more of Ukraine — or even pushing to Kyiv — would be much tougher than taking Crimea or parts of eastern Ukraine, said Paul Kolbe, a former CIA officer who leads the Intelligence Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center.

Putin can achieve many of his objectives without an invasion, Kolbe said, by putting pressure on Ukraine and NATO and driving a wedge between allies about how to respond.

“It’s fitting in with a larger pattern of ensuring from their perception that they don’t face threats on their close borders,” he said.

___

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Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-021

FILE - A Russian army soldier takes part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region in southern Russia, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. With tens of thousands of Russian troops positioned near Ukraine, the Kremlin has kept the U.S. and its allies guessing about its next moves in the worst...

Ukraine-009

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-014

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-013

A member of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, trains in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-010

A member of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, trains in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-015

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-019

Servicemen march leaving a memorial ceremony to honor the memory of civilians who died during shelling at a crowded bus stop in 2015, in Donetsk, controlled by Russia-backed separatists, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-005

A member of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, throws a hand grenade during training in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invas...

Ukraine-018

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-007

A member of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, trains in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

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A Ukrainian serviceman patrols a street near frontline with with Russia-backed separatists in Verkhnotoretske village in Yasynuvata district, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Russia on Thursday announced sweeping naval drills in several parts of the world this month, and cla...

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FILE - Russian tanks T-72B3 take part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region in southern Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. With tens of thousands of Russian troops positioned near Ukraine, the Kremlin has kept the U.S. and its allies guessing about its next moves in the worst...

Ukraine-006

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-020

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Ukraine-011

A member of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, trains in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-017

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-004

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-002

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-003

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

Ukraine-012

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. (AP Photo)

1000

FILE - A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. With tens of thousands of Russian troops positioned near Ukraine, the Kremlin has kept the U.S. and its allies guessing about its next moves in the worst Russia-West security crisis since the Cold Wa...

Ukraine-008 Ukraine-021 Ukraine-009 Ukraine-014 Ukraine-013 Ukraine-010 Ukraine-015 Ukraine-019 Ukraine-005 Ukraine-018 Ukraine-007 Ukraine-022 Ukraine-016 Ukraine-023 Ukraine-006 Ukraine-020 Ukraine-011 Ukraine-017 Ukraine-004 Ukraine-002 Ukraine-003 Ukraine-012 1000

Russia announces sweeping naval drills amid Ukraine tensions

Russia-002

Russia-002

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion. The Biden administration is unlikely to answer a...

Russia-010

Russia-010

Two Russian Su-30 fighter jets take off taking part in a training mission in Krasnodar Region, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

Russia-012

Russia-012

A view from the cockpit of a Russian Su-30 fighter jet as it takes part in a training mission in Krasnodar Region, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

Russia-001

Russia-001

A Russian air force pilot walks to aSu-30 fighter jet before a training mission in Krasnodar Region, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

Russia-004

Russia-004

In this photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, A Russian armored vehicle drives off a railway platform after arrival in Belarus, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. In a move that further beefs up forces near Ukraine, Russia has sent an unspecified number of troops from...

Russia-006

Russia-006

Secretary of State Antony Blinken departs Boryspil International Airport, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP Photo)

Russia-008

Russia-008

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows battle group deployments at the Pogonovo training area in Voronezh, Russia, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022. President Joe Biden said Wednesday, Jan. 19, he thinks Russia will invade Ukraine and warned President Vladimir Putin that his country would pa...

Russia-011

Russia-011

A view from the cockpit of a Russian Su-30 fighter jet as it takes part in a training mission in Krasnodar Region, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

Russia-003

Russia-003

Russian Su-34 bombers parked to take part in a training mission in Krasnodar Region, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

Russia-005

Russia-005

A Russian Su-30 fighter jet taxies before takeoff for a training mission in Krasnodar Region, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

Russia-007

Russia-007

A Russian Su-34 bomber takes off for a training mission in Krasnodar Region, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

Russia-009

Russia-009

Russian Su-30 fighter jets taxi before take off for a training mission in Krasnodar Region, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo)

Russia-002 Russia-010 Russia-012 Russia-001 Russia-004 Russia-006 Russia-008 Russia-011 Russia-003 Russia-005 Russia-007 Russia-009



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0003

A close-up of a heliport under construction in Rutog County.

0001

On volatile border between India and China, a high-altitude military buildup is underway

0004

Construction crews are now scattered around Ladakh as Indian authorities speed up their infrastructure race with China.

0005

An overview of a heliport under construction near Aksai Chin Lake, in a region administered by China but contested by India, on May 28.

0002

An overview of a heliport under construction in Rutog County in the Ngari Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, on Nov. 28.

0003 0001 0004 0005 0002




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BEIJING’S ISLAND-BUILDING IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

Runway

Runway

China is expanding the construction of its facilities on Fiery Cross Reef. Provided by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), this June 28, 2015 photo reveals Beijing has nearly completed a 3,000 meter (9,800-foot) airstrip, long enough to accommodate most Chinese military aircraft. Two h...

Expansion

Expansion

Reclamation on Fiery Cross Reef, which lies on the west side of the Spratly Islands, began in August of 2014 and its principal landmass was finished by November. Dredgers have created a land mass that spans the entire existing reef and is approximately 3,000 meters long and 200-300 meters wide.

Facilities

Facilities

This picture taken last November shows construction work being carried out on Fiery Cross Reef. The reef reportedly already houses a helicopter landing pad, a 300-meter-long wharf, a harbor large enough to dock military tankers, barracks and artillery emplacements.

South Johnson Reef

South Johnson Reef

This reef was one of the first facilities to finish principal land reclamation. This recent picture shows that a radar tower is nearing completion at the north end of the land mass. According to AMTI, a new large multi-level military facility has been built in the center of the island. Up to six sur...

A naval base?

A naval base?

Beginning in early 2015, Mischief Reef - also located in the Spratlys - has undergone extensive reclamation activity. Experts say that the recent widening of the southern entrance to the reef, coupled with sightings of Chinese navy vessels, may suggest a future role for the reclaimed reef as a naval...

From reef to island

From reef to island

Significant construction on Gaven Reef began in 2014, with a total of 114,000 square meters of land already created. Satellite pictures show just how fast construction has progressed on the reef. A new artificial island was created between March (left) and August (right) 2014.

Troop garrison

Troop garrison

According to AMTI, China has had a troop garrison on Gaven Reef since 2003, which has included a large supply platform where ships can dock. Experts say a new main square building in the reef appears to be an anti-aircraft tower.

A standardized process

A standardized process

As seen in this image, the basic process of expanding these features involves dredging sand from the seafloor and dumping it onto the reefs. The structure is raised above the high water line, hiding the status of the bank or reef beneath. The sand is then smoothed out and workers surround the island...

'Historic rights'

'Historic rights'

China claims most of the potentially energy-rich waterway, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The US Pacific Fleet commander recently said China was "creating a great wall of sand" in the South China Sea, causing serious concerns about its territorial intentions. Beijin...

Territorial disputes

Territorial disputes

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims, which have led to territorial disputes in the area. Last summer, China's deployment of a massive oil rig in waters also claimed by Hanoi escalated tensions in the region, sparking a standoff at sea and violent anti-C...

US concerns

US concerns

Washington is concerned China's efforts carry a military dimension that could undermine the US' naval and economic power in the Pacific, and has weighed sending warships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles of the new artificial islands. Washington has repeatedly called on Beijing and ...

Ecological impact

Ecological impact

The Philippines filed a formal plea at the UN last year, challenging Beijing's territorial claims. Manila said China's reclamation activities are causing "irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance of the South China Sea." It also claimed that the destruction of co...

Runway Expansion Facilities South Johnson Reef A naval base? From reef to island Troop garrison A standardized process 'Historic rights' Territorial disputes US concerns Ecological impact