Ukraine: Shelling Raises Fears Ukraine Conflict Is Heating Up – The New York Times

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A Ukrainian military tank exercise in Donetsk Oblast was abruptly canceled Thursday as soldiers  prepared to move to an undisclosed location.
Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

KYIV, Ukraine — A dramatic spike in shelling up and down the front line between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists on Thursday raised fears that a conflict that until now has consisted almost entirely of saber-rattling may now offer Moscow the kind of pretext the United States says it is looking for to invade.

Perhaps most worrisome, the separatists claimed that they had come under fire from the Ukrainians — precisely the sort of incident Western officials have warned Russia might try to use to justify military action. Moscow has long invoked what it says is its obligation to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.

The uptick in hostilities came as the United States and Russia traded conflicting claims about whether Russian forces were really pulling back from the Ukrainian border, as Moscow has insisted.

On Thursday, artillery shells struck a town on the Ukrainian government-controlled side of a war with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, damaging a kindergarten and wounding three adult civilians, the Ukrainian military said.

And Leonid Pasechnik, head of the Russian separatists’ self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, accused the Ukrainian Armed Forces for “massive strikes on civilians.” That claim could not be independently verified.

Earlier in the day, the United States and Russia continued to clash over the fate of Ukraine, with President Biden warning that the threat of a Russian attack remained “very high,” even as the Kremlin insisted that it was withdrawing troops from border areas and said in writing it was not planning an invasion.

But Russia repeated its threat of unspecified “military-technical measures” if the United States did not accede to its demands for sweeping changes to security arrangements in Eastern Europe.

The Kremlin continued to keep the United States and its Western allies off-balance, sounding positive notes about diplomacy in a written response to U.S. security proposals and offering the most detailed accounting so far of what Mr. Putin said on Tuesday was a “partial” pullback of the 150,000 troops that the United States estimates it has massed around Ukraine.

American U.S. officials said they were “watching closely” the shelling out of concern that Russia could use it as a pretext to invade as relations deteriorated. The State Department announced that Moscow had expelled the deputy American ambassador to Russia last week, calling it an “escalatory step” that would hinder diplomatic efforts.

Speaking at the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that despite Russian denials, U.S. intelligence believed Mr. Putin would launch an assault against Ukraine and challenged Moscow to say it would not.

The dizzying back-and-forth on Thursday was punctuated by Mr. Biden, who said in brief remarks outside the White House that while “there is a path” to a diplomatic resolution, he still expected Mr. Putin to launch an invasion within several days.

“Every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine,” he said.

Later on Thursday, the White House said Mr. Biden would speak with “transatlantic leaders” on Friday about Russia’s troops movements and “our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy.”

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President Biden said that he expected President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to carry out an invasion of Ukraine within “several days,” but that a diplomatic resolution was still possible.CreditCredit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, who met with the head of NATO in Brussels, said Russia continued to move troops closer to Ukraine’s borders, was adding combat aircraft and was stocking up on blood supplies in anticipation of casualties on the battlefield.

“I know firsthand that you don’t do these sorts of things for no reason,” Mr. Austin said. “And you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday that troops had redeployed hundreds of miles away from the Ukrainian border areas after conducting military exercises.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, insisted the withdrawal was continuing. “This process takes time,” he said. “They cannot just get lifted in the air and fly away.”

Russia has framed the crisis as revolving around its fundamental security. And it says that even the distant prospect of Ukraine joining NATO represents an existential threat.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine made it clear once again that NATO membership is key to his country’s long-term security. “It’s not an ambition,” he said in brief comments to the BBC. “It’s our life.”

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Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

STANYTSIA LUHANSKA, Ukraine — The fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces has been flaring for eight years. Daily skirmishes, mostly low-level, had become routine.

But an outbreak of hostilities on Thursday, coming at a particularly perilous moment in the tense standoff between Russia and the West, brought the fear of a larger conflict close to home for this dusty remote town not far from the Russian border.

The Ukrainian military said shells fired by Russian-backed separatists in the morning hit a kindergarten, wounding three teachers but no students, as well as the playground of a high school.

“It was a whistling sound, then an explosion,” said Tatyana Podikay, the director of the school, called Fairytale Kindergarten.

The teachers herded the students into a hallway with no windows, the building’s safest place, and waited for parents to pick them up, she said. “To create a calm psychological atmosphere the teachers told stories, and whoever needed it got a hug,” Ms. Podikay said.

The military also said two soldiers and a woman at a bus station were wounded. There were no reported fatalities.

In the evening, the sharp cracks of explosions echoed off buildings and flashes of light from incoming artillery shells silhouetted the trees. Out on the darkened streets, explosions echoed among the buildings. At least two volleys of a half dozen rounds each struck the town, arriving with a sharp hiss before exploding. Drivers stopped their cars, got out and listened worriedly.

One shell hit a residential building on Magistralna Street, bursting a gas pipe and starting a fire. The authorities said later in the evening that nobody had died or been wounded.

Each side blamed the other for the shelling, which was viewed with concern in Ukraine and in Western capitals for its potential to spiral into a bigger conflict.

Analysts said the nature of the shelling, which hit multiple sites along the contact line all in a single day, was unusual compared with recent months.

“Today it was long-distance and synchronized shelling,” said Maria Zolkina, a Ukrainian political analyst who works at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation. “It was simultaneous. This is notable.”

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CRIMEA

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200 MILES

The United States has said that Russia has massed about 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. And Western military analysts have predicted that Russia may claim an unprovoked attack, perhaps manufactured by Moscow, to justify an intervention in eastern Ukraine, possibly under the claim of serving as a peacekeeping force.

The artillery strikes began early Thursday and continued into the evening, when the sharp cracks of explosions echoed off buildings and flashes of light from incoming artillery shells silhouetted trees on the edge of town. The Ukrainian military reported 47 cease-fire violations in at least 25 different locations, including two towns, Stanytsia Luhanska and Popasna.

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Shelling in eastern Ukraine damaged a kindergarten, knocked out electricity and wounded at least four adult civilians and two soldiers, according to the Ukrainian military.CreditCredit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

After a lull in the afternoon, artillery fire resumed Thursday evening in Stanytsia Luhanska, a hardscrabble town of dusty, potholed roads surrounded by farm fields. There is a gas station, a few leafy residential streets and not much else.

Shells exploded in or near the town in at least two volleys of a half dozen rounds each. Drivers stopped their cars, got out and listened, worriedly.

Amid the fighting, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine flew to the front line to visit troops and was quoted in Ukrainian media saying he was proud of the army for “giving a worthy rebuff to the enemy.”

In Brussels, the U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, said that the reports of shelling were “troubling.”

While the United States was still gathering details, Mr. Austin said: “We’ve said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict. So we’ll be watching this very closely.”

That sequence of events has played out before with Russia. In 2008, the Russian Army invaded Georgia after a flare-up in fighting between government troops and a Russian-backed separatist movement in South Ossetia, a region of Georgia that Moscow now recognizes as an independent state.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, blamed Russia for a “severe violation” of the tenuous cease-fire agreement in the region, while President Zelensky described it as “provocative shelling.”

The Kremlin was taking a different line. “We have warned many times that excessive concentration of Ukrainian forces near the contact line, together with possible provocations, can pose terrible danger,” President Vladimir V. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said. He added that he hoped Western countries would warn Kyiv against a “further escalation of tensions.”

The Russian-backed separatists also blamed the Ukrainian Army. Leonid Pasechnik, head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, said the Ukrainian Army had shelled civilians early this morning — a claim that could not be independently verified.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, has said about a quarter of the inhabitants in the separatist regions — 750,000 out of about three million — are Russian citizens. A strike that wounds or kills a Russian citizen could elevate the risk of a Russian response.

To highlight what it called reckless firing into civilian areas, the Ukrainian military flew reporters, including one from The New York Times, to the site of the damaged kindergarten. The strike also knocked out electricity and sent residents scrambling into basements to seek cover.

Artillery and small-arms fire are common along the frontline, where an international monitoring group typically reports dozens to hundreds of cease-fire violations every day in recent years.

Homes, schools, administrative buildings and infrastructure including electrical pylons are often damaged. Earlier this year, Ukrainian authorities reported that a drone strike hit an abandoned school in an eastern Ukrainian town.

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Stanytsia Luhanksa, Ukraine, and Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv. Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow.

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Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told the United Nations that the United States believes that Russia plans to attack Ukraine “in the coming days.”CreditCredit…Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told the United Nations on Thursday that the United States believes Russia may invade Ukraine within days, and challenged Moscow to publicly forswear an attack on its neighbor and withdraw its troops immediately.

“The Russian government can announce today with no qualification, equivocation or deflection that Russia will not invade Ukraine. State it clearly, state it plainly to the world,” Mr. Blinken said in remarks to the United Nations Security Council. “And then demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, your planes back to their barracks and hangers, and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table.”

“In the coming days, the world will remember that commitment, or the refusal to make it,” Mr. Blinken added.

But U.S. officials do not expect Russia to de-escalate. A senior administration official noted earlier in the day that Moscow, which claims to be pulling troops away from Ukraine’s borders, made similar claims of de-escalation in 2008, just days before a major incursion into neighboring Georgia.

Mr. Blinken repeated U.S. warnings that a large-scale attack could be imminent. “Our information indicates clearly that these forces, including ground troops, aircraft, ships, are preparing to launch an attack against Ukraine in the coming days,” he warned.

Mr. Blinken made an unscheduled stop in New York City on his way to a security conference in Munich. He addressed a Security Council session that had been called by Russia meant to discuss the regional conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Blinken laid out what he described as a possible Russian playbook for a significant escalation of its intervention in that region, suggesting Moscow would stage a false flag attack or use misinformation to create “an invented justification for war.”

Mr. Blinken said a false flag operation could involve a “fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside of Russia” or even “a real attack using chemical weapons.”

Mr. Blinken did not unveil substantive new U.S. negotiating positions, although he said that he had sent a letter to the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, requesting a meeting. He also acknowledged that the U.S. had received Russia’s latest written diplomatic messages, transmitted in Moscow today, “which we’re evaluating.”

His surprise appearance was a dramatic gesture and a sign of high-level attention in what has become an increasingly acrimonious messaging war between the United States and Russia.

Russia called the Security Council session to address the Minsk accords, a series of cease-fire agreements struck in 2014 and 2015 after Russia-backed separatists seized territory in eastern Ukraine.

Russia and Ukraine continue to discuss the accords, which they interpret differently, in a negotiating channel brokered by Germany and France. Some analysts believe they offer hope for a diplomatic solution to the Russian military threat along Ukraine’s border. But many Ukrainians consider them a threat to their nation’s sovereignty and a reward for Russian intervention.

Mr. Blinken cited talk within Russia, echoed this week by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, of “genocide” against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, saying that such statements make “a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber do not take lightly.”

“Nor do I take lightly based on my family history,” Mr. Blinken added. Mr. Blinken’s stepfather was a survivor of Nazi death camps.

After the session, Mr. Blinken was scheduled to travel to the annual Munich Security Conference, where he will hold meetings about Ukraine with other Western officials.

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Credit…Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Russia’s government has expelled the deputy U.S. ambassador from the country, the State Department said on Thursday, in what American officials called an “escalatory step” that could limit diplomatic solutions for the crisis on Ukraine’s borders.

The chief American envoy to Russia, Ambassador John J. Sullivan, remains in Moscow and on Thursday received the government’s written response to the Biden administration’s proposals to ease tensions and improve security in Europe.

The official who was expelled is his deputy, Bart Gorman, who had been in Russia less than three years on a diplomatic tour that had not yet concluded, said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue. Mr. Gorman’s visa to Russia was still valid and his expulsion “was unprovoked,” the official said.

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Mr. Gorman was notified of his expulsion last week, the official said, but the State Department announced it on Thursday after Russia publicly confirmed it. The delayed disclosure was notable in that it could signal deteriorating chances for diplomacy as the United States and Russia trade accusations over Moscow’s military buildup and the prospects of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The State Department is considering what steps it will take in response to Mr. Gorman’s expulsion, the official said.

“Now more than ever, it is critical that our countries have the necessary diplomatic personnel in place to facilitate communication between our governments,” the official said in a statement. 

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that the decision to revoke Mr. Gorman’s diplomatic credentials was a response to the American expulsion of Russian deputy chief of mission in the United States.

While the State Department official confirmed that the deputy Russian ambassador to Washington had left his post last month, his departure was described as routine and at the end of his regularly scheduled rotation.

The Russian statement, however, said that Russian diplomat had to leave the United States before his replacement could arrive, which “exacerbated the already critical deficit of staff” at the Russian Embassy.

Thursday’s developments were the latest in a long-running dispute with the United States over diplomatic visas. Both sides have expelled dozens of diplomats, closed consulates and seized each other’s diplomatic property.

The State Department official maintained on Thursday that the number of American diplomats and other employees at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and consulates around Russia is far fewer than that of Russians in missions in the United States. And the State Department demanded that Russia “end its baseless expulsions” of diplomatic employees.

But in the Russian statement, Maria Zakharova, a Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman, said that the United States had decided to expel 55 Russian diplomats and embassy workers in September despite Russia’s offer to freeze such tit-for-tat measures.

“The intensifying visa war is not our choice,” Ms. Zakharova said.

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Credit…Pool photo by Alexei Nikolsky

MOSCOW — Russia said on Thursday that it was not planning to invade Ukraine but warned it would take “military-technical” measures if the United States did not meet its demands to roll back the NATO presence in Eastern Europe.

The comments came in a lengthy document Russia published and sent to Washington, which outlined Russia’s hard-line position that the security architecture of Eastern Europe had to be renegotiated.

“No ‘Russian invasion of Ukraine’, which the United States and its allies have officially been announcing since last fall, is happening, nor is one being planned,” the letter said.

But the document also repeated warnings made by President Vladimir V. Putin in December that if the United States did not accede to its demands, Russia would take military measures of its own to assure its security.

“In the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees of our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of measures of a military-technical character,” the letter said.

The document was the latest diplomatic salvo in a back-and-forth with Washington over the security architecture of Eastern Europe, but also offered a jarring contrast to the reality of Russia’s huge troop buildup around Ukraine. Russia insists that the United States is responsible for escalating tensions in the region.

The Russian letter, a response to earlier proposals from the United States, characterized the U.S. proposals as “not constructive” in relation to Russia’s central demands that NATO guarantee that Ukraine never join the alliance, and that NATO pull back troops stationed in countries that joined the alliance after 1997.

The document left the door open to a very narrow diplomatic way forward. It sounded positive notes about specific U.S. arms control proposals, but insisted that they could only be agreed on as part of a package that addressed Russia’s central demands.

“We note the readiness of the United States to work substantively on individual arms control and risk reduction measures,” the document said.

It said that an American proposal to allow Russia to inspect U.S. missile defense bases in Poland and Romania that the Kremlin sees as a threat could “be further taken into consideration.” It also said that Russia saw “the potential for mutually acceptable agreements” on the subject of long-range bomber flights near national borders. And it said that Russia was “open in principle” to a discussion of replacing the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark 1987 nuclear arms-control pact that the Trump administration abandoned in 2019, after accusing Russia of violating it.

“We welcome the readiness of the United States for appropriate consultations,” the document said, referring to the issue of preventing incidents between American and Russian forces operating at sea and in the air. “However, this work cannot replace the settlement of the key problems posed by Russia.”

There was no immediate American response to the content of the document. A senior State Department official said that the United States “received a written response from the Russian Federation,” delivered to the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, John J. Sullivan.

The Russian document underscored the wide-ranging aims pursued by Mr. Putin through his intensive, coercive diplomacy of recent months, with a huge troop buildup around Ukraine threatening an invasion while Moscow’s envoys demand that the West recognize a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

“Our ‘red lines’ and fundamental security interests are being ignored, and Russia’s inalienable right to assure them is being rejected,” the document said.

Correction: 

An earlier version of this report misstated the day of the week that a Russian official said that a separate written response directed at NATO was still being prepared. It was Thursday, not Tuesday.

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Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

OSIPOVICHI, Belarus — Mocking the United States for spending billions on intelligence agencies that he said had wrongly predicted an attack on Ukraine, the autocratic leader of Belarus, Russia’s western neighbor and closest ally, said Thursday that joint military exercises now underway between the countries did not presage an invasion — at least not now.

Western officials have warned that the military maneuvers, known as Allied Resolve 2022 and described by NATO as the biggest deployment of Russian troops in Belarus since the end of the Cold War, could serve as cover for an assault on Ukraine, which shares a nearly 700-mile-long border with Belarus.

“There will be no invasion tomorrow,” the Belarusian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, told reporters after watching artillery and warplanes from Belarus and Russia put on a noisy display of firepower at a desolate military training ground outside Osipovichi, a small town southeast of Minsk, the capital. The United States and its allies say the Russian threat remains high.

Russia did not show off its most advanced warplanes or battle tanks. But Sukhoi fighter bombers and Mi-24 helicopter gunships still projected power, streaking over a snow-covered expanse of land now fast turning to mud — far from ideal conditions for the land assault on Ukraine that American officials have been predicting for weeks.

The joint exercises have attracted close attention from the West as a guide not only to Moscow’s intentions in Ukraine but also in Belarus, an independent state that has increasingly fallen under the thumb of the Kremlin since it helped Mr. Lukashenko suppress huge street protests in 2020 after a contested election.

Asked whether some of the Russian troops and military hardware deployed in Belarus for the 10-day-long exercises might stay in his country after the drills end on Sunday, Mr. Lukashenko said this would be decided on Friday, when he meets President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Moscow.

“If it makes sense to keep Russian troops here, we will keep them as long as necessary,” Mr. Lukashenko said in remarks that seemed to contradict a statement a day earlier by his foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, that “not a single Russian serviceman and not a single piece of Russian military hardware will remain after these maneuvers.”

Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, said there was no need for permanent Russian military bases in his country but indicated that Russia might leave behind ammunition and some military equipment so “as not to drag them and back and forth” each time the two countries hold military exercises.

The United States, he said, should “calm down” and admit what he said were the mistakes of the intelligence assessments pointing to an imminent invasion.

“Do you still believe that we will attack Ukraine from here? Are you still entertaining this crazy idea?” Mr. Lukashenko asked before climbing into his presidential helicopter for a flight back to Minsk.

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Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said Russia continued to build up troops and military equipment on Ukraine’s border, contradicting Moscow’s claim that it would pull back some of its forces.CreditCredit…Olivier Matthys/Associated Press

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and the head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said on Thursday that Russia’s troop buildup around Ukraine belies Moscow’s assertion that it is withdrawing some troops. But both leaders urged President Vladimir V. Putin to avert war through a diplomatic solution.

Mr. Austin, speaking in Brussels after two days of meetings among NATO defense ministers, said Russia’s military was inching closer to Ukraine’s borders, flying in more combat and support aircraft, sharpening their naval combat readiness in the Black Sea, and stocking up front-line blood supplies.

“I know firsthand that you don’t do these sorts of things, for no reason,” said Mr. Austin, a retired four-star Army general. “And you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”

Mr. Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, said in a separate news conference in Brussels that with more than 150,000 Russian troops encircling Ukraine on three sides, Moscow could launch a full-scale invasion “with very little or no warning.” But he added, “We don’t know with certainty about their intention.”

“We have to see a real withdrawal,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “So far, we’re not seeing that.”

Asked about reports of shelling in the Donbas region, Mr. Austin said intelligence analysts were assessing their veracity, and whether the shelling could be one of many possible pretexts for Russian military action that American and British officials have said Mr. Putin would concoct to justify an attack.

Both leaders rejected Russia’s demand that NATO deny Ukraine possible membership in the future.

“We cannot accept a return to an age of spheres of influence, where big powers bully, intimidate or dictate to others,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “There can be no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine and no decisions.”

Still, Mr. Austin said the United States and its allies remained ready to discuss Russia’s security grievances through diplomatic channels. “There is nothing inevitable about this looming conflict,” he said. “It can still be averted.”

Meantime, at the Pentagon on Thursday, analysts were poring over new satellite imagery and other intelligence, trying to decipher any clues from the newly arriving Russian forces about when and how Mr. Putin’s military might attack. Even a few hours’ warning of an imminent assault would be critical in helping Ukraine prepare its defenses.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been personally involved in drilling down on a range of possible Russian attack scenarios, officials said, pressing analysts for details such as the location and combat readiness of specific ground units, ship movements and the intentions of those forces. General Milley regularly updates President Biden on the fast-moving developments, officials said.

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Credit…Gregor Fischer/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

BRUSSELS — Ulrike Franke is a self-confessed German millennial, a defense analyst who worries about her generation’s allergy to the military, especially as it moves into positions of power.

“After 30 years of peace,’’ she wrote last year in a well-read essay, “German millennials have a hard time adjusting to the world we are living in now. We struggle to think in terms of interests, we struggle with the concept of geopolitical power, and we struggle with military power being an element of geopolitical power.”

Russia’s massive and open military threat to Ukraine, she and others say, is now shaking a sense of complacency among young and old Europeans alike who have never known war, hot or cold. For some, at least, the moment is an awakening as the threat of war grows real.

But just how far Europe is prepared to go in shifting from a world where peace and security were taken for granted remains to be seen. For decades Europeans have paid relatively little in money, lives or resources for their defense — and paid even less attention, sheltering under an American nuclear umbrella left over from the Cold War.

That debate had begun to shift in recent years, even before Russia’s menacing of Ukraine, with talk of a more robust and independent European strategic and defense posture. But the crisis has done as much to expose European weakness on security issues as it has to fortify its sense of unity.

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WASHINGTON — The last of nearly 5,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Poland on Thursday, Pentagon officials said, providing reassurance to a pivotal NATO ally and expertise in helping with the possible evacuation of Americans and others from Ukraine should Russia invade.

The Pentagon reiterated that the troops would not enter Ukraine, but could help the Polish government deal with the possible influx of people fleeing over the border if there is a war.

Another 1,000 American troops — a Stryker squadron from the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment — are moving from Germany to Romania, and should be in place by Saturday, a U.S. military official said. The Air Force has sent more than a dozen additional fighter jets to Eastern Europe in recent days to bolster aerial defenses there.

The reinforcements would more than double the number of American ground troops in the two countries, to roughly 9,000 in Poland and nearly 2,000 in Romania, putting U.S. soldiers and Russian troops in perhaps the closest proximity in years outside of drills.

President Biden has said American troops will not fight in Ukraine, but by rushing the American air and land reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank, officials said, the United States aims to deter any possible Russian aggression and reassure nervous allies that Washington has their backs.

“The troops that we have added to the already 80,000 that are based in Europe are going to reassure our allies and our partners to deter aggression against the alliance to conduct some joint training,” Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby told reporters this week.

Besides any symbolic value, the 82nd Airborne soldiers may be thrust into the challenging job of helping Polish authorities manage possibly tens of thousands of people — including Americans — fleeing neighboring Ukraine if President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia orders his 150,000 troops massing on Ukraine’s borders to attack.

“Certainly, assistance with evacuation flow is something that they could do, and could do quite well,” Mr. Kirby said. “And they’re going to be working with Polish authorities on what that looks like, and how they would handle that.”

The Biden administration has said U.S. troops will not evacuate American citizens and residents from Ukraine itself, as the military did last August in Afghanistan, and have repeatedly urged Americans to leave the country.

Mr. Kirby said while some of the Army troops may operate in eastern Poland, near the Ukrainian border, one thing is clear: “There’s no intention, there’s no plan, and there’s no approval to put these troops into Ukraine. They’re being sent to Poland. They’re going to stay in Poland.”

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Listen to ‘The Daily’: Why U.S. Soldiers Won’t Come to Ukraine’s Rescue

Throughout the threat of a Russian invasion, Washington has rejected using its most powerful tool: troops.

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WASHINGTON — As U.S. officials grew convinced this month that Russia might invade Ukraine, they implored American citizens to leave the country immediately — and added a grim addendum.

No rescuers would be coming for those who stayed behind, they said.

It was a point President Biden drove home last week by insisting he would not use the military to extract anyone trapped by a Russian attack.

“An invasion remains distinctly possible,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday in a national address. “That’s why I’ve asked several times that all Americans in Ukraine leave now before it’s too late to leave safely.”

The fallout from last summer’s chaotic evacuation of Americans from Afghanistan appears to have shaped Mr. Biden’s approach to the Ukraine crisis in multiple ways, from more explicit coordination with European allies, who in some cases felt sidelined from Afghanistan planning, to greater transparency about the most dire intelligence assessments.

But in Ukraine and beyond, U.S. officials have also focused on a more specific worry: that Americans living in foreign danger zones would wrongly assume that an Air Force C-17 cargo plane — like those that transported thousands out of Afghanistan during the final days of the U.S. withdrawal — would be their escape option of last resort.

“The United States does not typically do mass evacuations,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters last week. Lest anyone recall last summer’s events in Kabul, she pointed out that “the situation in Afghanistan was unique for many reasons.”

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REDZIKOWO, Poland — Tomasz Czescik, a Polish archaeologist and television journalist, walks his dog each morning through a forest near his home here on NATO’s eastern flank, wandering along the edge of a green chain-link fence topped with razor wire.

He enjoys the fresh air and morning quiet — until loudspeakers on the other side of the fence, strung with “Keep Out” signs in Polish, English, German and Russian, start blasting “The Star-Spangled Banner” at high volume.

“I don’t know anyone who has ever been inside there,” Mr. Czescik said, pointing across the fence toward a cluster of haze-shrouded buildings in the distance.

The fence is the outer perimeter, guarded by Polish soldiers, of a highly sensitive U.S. military installation, expected to be operational this year, which Washington insists will help defend Europe and the United States from ballistic missiles fired by rogue states like Iran.

But for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the military base in Poland and another in Romania are evidence of what he sees as the threat posed by NATO’s eastward expansion — and part of his justification for his military encirclement of Ukraine. The Pentagon describes the two sites as defensive and unrelated to Russia, but the Kremlin believes they could be used to shoot down Russian rockets or to fire offensive cruise missiles at Moscow.

For some villagers in Redzikowo, the idea that they are living at the forefront of Mr. Putin’s oft-stated security concerns has already caused jitters.

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Credit…Pool photo by John Thys

BRUSSELS — Anxious about the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, European Union leaders met on Thursday in Brussels to review what they say is a long list of sanctions that would be used to punish Russia in the event of an invasion.

“Diplomacy has not yet spoken its last word — that is good — and we still have hope that peace will prevail,” the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said. But, she added: “We are ready. We hope for the best, but we are prepared for the worst.”

The bloc’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said: “Certainly nobody has evidence of this withdrawal of troops. But what we have evidence of and we are very much concerned, worried, about is increasing fighting and heavy shelling.”

For the European Union sanctions to go into effect, all 27 member states need to approve them, a process that can be done quickly through ambassadors and does not require heads of government to meet again in person.

While the package of sanctions seems to be on a path to approval, there is still debate among E.U. leaders about what would prompt them.

Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins of Latvia, whose small country borders Russia, said the trigger was hard to define.

“An escalation can come in many ways,” he said. “One way that the world could see very easily is the frontal, large-scale military assault, but it can also come through smaller assaults.”

The list of sanctions has not been made public, and it remains one of the most closely held documents in Brussels. Officials have said it includes various restrictions and punishments aimed at Russian officials, private citizens who are close to President Vladimir V. Putin, financial institutions and key industries, including energy.

Among the ideas being considered are travel bans and measures to freeze the assets of businesses and individuals.