The Obama administration is watching "with skepticism" Russia's movement of its more than 20,000 troops near Ukraine's eastern and southern borders.
"Obviously given their past practice, and the gap between what they have said and what they have done we are watching it with skepticism," National Security Adviser Susan Rice
told CNN Friday, noting that the Russians have said they intend to conduct military exercises.
But based on intelligence, officials are concerned that Russia may not be telling the truth, and that Moscow can use any reason it wishes to justify sending its military into Ukraine, including claiming a need to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians or the transportation lines from Russia to Crimea. The Russian government could also use the excuse of needing to protect the energy supply from Ukraine to Crimea, which is now part of Russia.
Obama administration officials say they are basing their skepticism on intelligence from the field and because of a history of broken Russian promises.
CNN, citing unnamed sources, reports that the White House is very concerned about the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine soon.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who told assured him "that the troops he has arrayed along the border are there to conduct exercises only, that they had no intention of crossing the border into Ukraine, and that they would take no aggressive action,” according to a Pentagon description of the call.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials told The New York Times
they do not believe a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent, but are still worried that there will be no time for American and NATO officials to react if an invasion happens.
"The Russian forces are reinforcing and bulking up along the eastern Ukrainian border," an unnamed Pentagon official told The The Times “Our view is they’re preserving all their options, including going in, absolutely. If they choose to do that, we just wouldn’t have much warning.”
On Thursday, President Barack Obama cited Russia's troop movements and announced new sanctions against Russian officials with ties to President Vladimir Putin.
Obama will travel to Europe next week, and Rice admitted the Ukraine situation is prompting a reassessment of the United States' relationship with Russia.
After the Cold War, Rice said, Russia integrated into the global order under the requirement it obey international rules, but "What we have seen in Ukraine is obviously a very egregious departure from that."
Obama administration officials are also concerned about possible clashes between Russian and Ukrainian troops.
"This is obviously a very worrying and fragile situation,” Rice said, "but we have been very much admiring of the posture that the Ukrainian people and government have been taking."
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