Pentagon officials claim it's all about "avoiding escalation" - but surely the Kremlin will see the revelations in this recent New York Times report very differently: "The Pentagon is working on a plan to provide Ukraine with battlefield intelligence that could help the country more quickly respond to a possible Russian invasion, senior administration officials said."
This weekend Russia's military announced the withdrawal of some 10,000 troops from near the Ukrainian border at the conclusion of what it dubbed "training drills". But Kiev and Washington officials have been asking about the some 100,000 additional forces said to be mustered in the region. Contrary to claims that an "invasion" is set for some point in January, there are significant signs this is the beginning of de-escalation.
The NY Times report frames the currently in the works Pentagon planning as a contingency that would enable Washington to help thwart any Russian incursion into Donbass "in real time". But to most common sense outside observers, it appears a recipe for ensuring the US would get directly sucked into to any Russia-Ukraine shooting war.
This further follows on the heels of Ukraine's army showing off its guided anti-tank Javelin missiles, last week week deployed in 'live-fire' exercises near a pro-Russia separatist region. But by all accounts a robust intelligence sharing plan would marks a huge escalation in US military and intelligence involvement. NY Times writes:
But the proposal at the Pentagon for "actionable" intelligence is potentially more significant, two U.S. officials said. The information would include images of whether Russian troops were moving to cross the border. Such information, if shared in time, could enable the Ukrainian military to head off an attack.
The real-time nature of the sharing would also be clearly geared toward ensuring that Washington doesn't hear about a sudden "Russian annexation of Eastern Ukraine" in the newspapers the next day. While it's not explicitly stated in the report, any authorization of such a program would more than likely involve a covert US intelligence presence on the ground in the region (of course, this very likely has already long been the case).
As described by one top former Obama admin official, Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, "The number one thing we can do is real time actionable intelligence that says, 'The Russians are coming over the berm,'". She added: "We tell them, and they use that to target the Russians."
But if the Russian military knew such US targeting assistance were the case, it would immediately deem the US a direct party and aggressor in the conflict, opening up the possibility of a rapidly internationalized regional war centered on Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the list of Pentagon "options" being drawn up doesn't stop there:
The list of ideas being drawn up at the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House include redirecting helicopters and other military equipment once allocated for the Afghan military to Ukraine, officials said. The administration is also considering sending additional cyberwarfare experts to Ukraine. The United States and Britain have sent some experts to shore up defenses in case Mr. Putin launches a cyberstrike on Ukraine either in advance or instead of a ground invasion.
The delay in actually implementing the US plan is tied precisely to fears that Putin would see it as enough of a serious provocation to set invasion plans in motion...
New from @helenecooper (with a small assist from me) the US is mulling providing more battlefield intelligence to Ukraine to prepare for anything Russia might do. The delay? No one wants to give Putin an excuse to claim the moral high ground. https://t.co/Bv6e0fI8rJ— Julian E. Barnes (@julianbarnes) December 23, 2021
A lot if this will likely depend on whether Russia and US-NATO talks planned for next month actually materialize. Last week the Russian side made public what it says are agreed upon talks for "security guarantees" related to NATO eastward expansion, to be held in Geneva.
However, the White House has been much more vague so far on its level of commitment to the talks, with Jen Psaki days ago being unable to confirm where or when the talks would take place.