By Nicole Gaouette, Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood, CNN
Russian President Vladimir Putin has built military capacity on the border of Ukraine that is “much larger and on a much more lethal scale” than preceded Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said Tuesday, warning of severe risks to Moscow if it invades Ukraine.
Moscow has positioned approximately 100 tactical groups and nearly all its ready ground forces based west of the Urals at different spots along its border with Ukraine, Nuland told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Much of this comes right out of Putin’s 2014 playbook,” Nuland said, “but this time, it is much larger and on a much more lethal scale.”
Speaking with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” after her Senate appearance, Nuland also said Russia now has forces on three sides of Ukraine, “which is not a scenario we’ve seen before.”
Nuland, in that appearance later Tuesday, said Russia might use Belarus to invade Ukraine and perhaps “mask” its forces to look like Belarusian troops, a point she had emphasized in the Senate hearing as well.
“What we have not yet seen, but which we could see, are Russian forces coming down toward Ukraine from Belarus or, as I said today, masking as fellow Belarusian forces,” Nuland told Tapper. “We’ve seen the increasing dependence that Belarusian President (Alexander) Lukashanko has on Putin, so Putin could demand that he return the favor.”
In the Senate hearing, Nuland told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, that “it was particularly concerning to see President Lukashenko make a change in his own posture with regard to Crimea. He had long declined to recognize Russia’s claim on Crimea, but he changed tack a week ago, which is concerning.”
Nuland said that if Putin does take military action against Ukraine, the response from the US and allies won’t resemble their reaction after Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
This time, the US and its allies will respond differently to any military action against Ukraine, Nuland said.
While she declined to offer specific examples in an open hearing, she said the US and European allies “will be united in imposing severe consequences on Moscow for its actions, including high impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past.”
Unlike the sanctions pursued in 2014, which escalated somewhat gradually, “this time the intent is to make clear that the initial sanctions in response to any further aggressive moves in Ukraine will be extremely significant and isolating for Russia and for Russian business and for the Russian people.”
She added that “none of us seeks confrontation or crisis. Certainly, the Russian people don’t need it.”
Nuland testified hours after President Joe Biden spoke by secure video call with Putin to outline potential sanctions and other ramifications should the Russian leader move militarily against Ukraine.
The two-hour call was just the latest diplomatic outreach meant to avoid war on European soil.
After a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Thursday in Stockholm, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that the US and European allies are “deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine, including efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within and large-scale military operations.”
Nuland said diplomatic outreach to Ukrainian officials is “ongoing at every level” and that Defense Department officials are having “pretty fulsome” conversations with their Ukrainian counterparts.
Biden is set to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later Tuesday or Wednesday, she said, following a call Blinken made to Zelensky on Monday after his meeting with Ukraine’s foreign minister in Stockholm. “We’ve had the defense minister, the foreign minister, the national security adviser in Washington,” Nuland noted. “And we have a very robust team in the embassy and our advisers in Kiev now.”
A recent US intelligence assessment found that the Kremlin could begin an offensive involving up to 175,000 troops staged at different points along the border with Ukraine. CNN has reported that Russia has staged enough forces, equipment and supplies, including medical units and fuel, near Ukraine’s borders to sustain a drawn-out conflict.
CIA Director Bill Burns said Monday that with those pieces in place, Putin is able to act swiftly.
“We don’t know that Putin has made up his mind to use force, but what we do know is that he’s putting the Russian military, the Russian security forces in a place where they could act in a pretty sweeping way,” Burns told the Wall Street Journal CEO Summit.
Planting the seeds
Nuland said that Putin is planting seeds of disinformation within Russia, using claims that the country is under threat from Ukraine to “prepare the ground in his own body politic.” She emphasized the need for US officials to convey to the Russian people what’s at stake.
“I think it’s important that not just President Putin, as he got the message very clearly from President Biden today, but that the Russian people also appreciate the kinds of things that are being contemplated and the kind of risk that their President is potentially taking them into, including for their sons and daughters who serve,” Nuland said.
The undersecretary and senators of both parties also warned that the Russian leader may be underestimating changes that have taken place in Ukraine since 2014.
“If Putin invades Ukraine, the implications will be devastating for the Russian economy, but also for the Russian people,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. “Ukrainian military forces of 2021 are not the Ukrainian military forces of 2014. They are well equipped thanks to the United States and our allies. They are well trained. They have years of combat experience and most importantly, they have every incentive to fight.”
Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, later offered his own assessment. “Russian blood will be spilled and there will be Russians going home in body bags if (Putin) invades this country,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional details Tuesday.
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CNN’s Michael Conte contributed to this report