Members of US President Joe Biden’s Cabinet briefed the Senate about Ukraine on Thursday as Republicans and Democrats inched closer to a Russia sanctions bill after more than a week of negotiations.
During the briefing, senior US officials discussed recently declassified intelligence indicating that Russian President Vladimir Putin was considering a plan to stage a false attack that would show the Ukrainian military or intelligence assaulting Russian territory, establishing a pretext for military action.
“It’s realistic to believe that he accuses someone else of the aggression,” Republican Rick Scott told The National after the briefing.
“When somebody puts 100,000 troops on the border, I think you have to assume the worst.”
Those briefing included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandor Mayorkas.
“Russia is in the process of producing movies, producing press releases, producing false proof that the Ukrainians are doing something to provoke them,” James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, said after the briefing.
“This is a false operation to try to justify them in an invasion.”
Mr Biden has threatened Russia with massive economic consequences should Mr Putin move ahead with an invasion of Ukraine – consequences that reportedly could include imposing personal sanctions on the Russian president and his inner circle.
But Congress has also taken matters into its own hands, as Republicans negotiate with Democrats to include applying some sanctions on Russia before any possible Ukraine invasion.
Mr Risch, who is leading the negotiations on behalf of Republicans, told The National that senators are “close” to finalising a Russia sanctions package that would have the necessary votes needed to pass.
But Democrat Chris Murphy, one of eight senators taking part in the negotiations, said the same sticking points between the two parties remain.
“We’re trading proposals on Nord Stream 2 and pre, versus post, invasion sanctions,” Mr Murphy told The National.
A vote on a bill to sanction the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline from Russia to Germany failed last month in the Senate with 55 in favour and 44 opposed – falling short of the 60 votes needed to pass the legislation.
Although Ukraine has favoured sanctioning Nord Stream 2, the Biden administration – like its immediate predecessor – has shied away from doing so for fear of alienating Germany.
Nonetheless, US officials have said that they’ve secured commitments from Berlin that Germany will not activate the pipeline should Russia proceed with an invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has also called for immediate sanctions on Russia. But the Biden administration has rejected that proposition so far, saying that pre-emptive sanctions would prompt them to lose their deterrent effect.
“We need to start imposing those now so that Putin understands what will happen to his economy with those sanctions,” Republican Joni Ernst said after the briefing.
The Biden administration has also sent another 3,500 troops to Germany, Poland and Romania – a move that senators from both parties have largely welcomed while stressing that their purpose remains to reassure Nato allies.
“We’re not going to go to war on the continent of Europe, that’s not in the cards,” said Republican Mitt Romney. “This is a signal.”
Republican Thom Tillis also noted that the US is not sending the troops with any intent to be in Ukraine.
“They’re not a Nato ally and we don’t have any Article V commitment to a number of countries in and around the region,” Mr Tillis said, referring to the collective defence clause of the Nato alliance.
“A lot of this is reassurance.”
Russia has demanded that Nato rule out further expansion of the alliance into Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. And while there are no plans for Ukraine to join Nato, the US and its allies have rejected this demand.
Mr Risch noted that the newly pledged US troops are “immediately adjacent to countries who are part of that Nato organisation and who are very concerned".
“It is important that we don’t engage US forces against Russia,” he said. “And there is no plan to do that.”
Still, Mr Risch acknowledged that if any fighting in Ukraine spills over into Nato member countries, then “Article V comes into play, period, no question".