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US warns that Russia may target multiple cities in Ukraine

Vice President Kamala Harris, pictured in January, 2022. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The U.S. has told allies that any Russian invasion of Ukraine would potentially see it target multiple cities beyond the capital Kyiv, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Cities that could also come under attack include Kharkiv in the northeast and Odessa and Kherson in the south, said the people, all Western officials who asked not to be identified talking about such sensitive matters. They did not provide details on the intelligence they said underlined these calculations.

The U.S. view is shaped in part by granular insight into the types of Russian forces and capabilities currently near Ukraine, as well as how they might be prepared to act from multiple locations, the officials said. They did not specify what a potential attack might include, or comment on what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal might be in taking such action, but one person said U.S. assessments suggest any large scale invasion could be backed up by air support and cyber disruptions.

An invasion from multiple locations could essentially fence Ukraine in. Such massive attacks and the huge civilian casualties they’d likely cause would galvanize Western support for sanctions on Russia, as well as shock people in Russia, many of whom have family and cultural ties to Ukraine.

Russia has positioned significant combat forces in Belarus, on the Russian-Ukrainian border, in occupied Crimea and at sea. Moscow also supports separatists in eastern Ukraine although it denies arming them.

President Joe Biden said on Friday he’s now convinced Putin has decided to move against Ukraine and that an invasion — including a strike on Kyiv — could come within days. A similar assessment to Biden’s public remarks was shared with key European allies on Friday, the officials said. One said there was no way of knowing with certainty what Putin will ultimately decide to do, and that even if he has made a decision it can be reversed at short notice. Putin has indicated the buildup is partly intended to pressure the West on his demands for security guarantees.

Moscow continues to deny it plans to invade Ukraine and says it is already pulling troops back from areas near the border. The U.S. disputes that, accusing Russia of building up its forces further over the past week. Russia is now also extending drills in Belarus which were due to end Sunday.

Russian officials last week mocked Western intelligence, after similar warnings an invasion could happen as soon as Feb. 15 or 16. “It is impossible to talk seriously about such issues,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said by phone on Saturday in response to a request for comment on whether Russia could potentially target a number of cities in the event of an invasion.

“Bloomberg has already published several articles about the alleged Russian invasion of Ukraine or non-invasion of Ukraine,” said Zakharova, whose response Bloomberg is printing here in its entirety. “This information has never proved accurate. It was denied both by the Russian side and refuted directly by subsequent events,” she said. “Each time Bloomberg refers to some unnamed sources: some diplomats or some intelligence data. If at least one of those times the information was confirmed, it would probably be worth discussing this topic. At the same time, Bloomberg hasn’t drawn any conclusions and continues to refer to some unnamed sources and replicate fakes. In this regard, there is a logical conclusion that Bloomberg is either blindly allowing itself to be used by U.S. intelligence agencies or knowingly spreading disinformation.”

The German and French governments, which had adopted a more cautious view on the prospects of a Russia move on Ukraine, have stepped up their public warnings in the past 24 hours. “Every indication is that Russia is planning a full attack on Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told German broadcaster ARD.

Spokespeople for the White House National Security Council declined to comment.

Attacks on some of Ukraine’s trade arteries would have significant economic consequences. As much as 70% of Ukraine’s exports and imports go by sea and the Odessa region’s ports handle three quarters of that. Ukraine mostly ships by sea to and from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.

While Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has agreed to meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week in Europe, the U.S. assessment is that Moscow has not appeared willing to engage in substantive discussions on proposals the U.S. has put forward, the officials said. Those include discussions around arms control and risk reduction mechanisms. Russia has also steered clear of opportunities to explain what was going on with its troops, one of them said.

The Kremlin has demanded that NATO shut the door to further members, especially Ukraine, and that the military alliance rewind its presence in eastern Europe. Both those requests are seen as non-starters. NATO has moved more troops east, although it has made clear alongside the U.S. that soldiers would not go into Ukraine if Russia were to invade.

The U.S. and the U.K. have also publicly warned that Russia is working to create pretexts for an invasion, which could come in the form of a so-called “false-flag” operation or trying to goad Ukraine into an escalation.

The officials pointed to an increase in reports of cease-fire violations and disinformation in eastern Ukraine, where separatists control some areas and often exchange fire with Ukrainian troops. The leaders of two self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas area say they have ordered civilians living there to leave for Russia and are calling for men of fighting age to mobilize.

Moscow accuses Kyiv of seeking to forcibly regain control of Donbas, and of unprovoked attacks on separatist areas, which Ukraine denies.

The U.S. and the U.K. also attributed a cyberattack against Ukraine’s financial sector last week to Russian intelligence services. Moscow said it was not behind the disruption.

Still, Western leaders are at pains to stress there is still a diplomatic window. “As much diplomacy as possible without being naive — that’s the aim,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Saturday at the Munich Security Conference. Group of Seven leaders plan a virtual call on Thursday.

“I believe that we should continue to try up until the very last minute, until it’s no longer possible,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday in Vilnius.

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