The Biden administration is "deeply concerned" by new intelligence — detailed for Axios and other outlets — showing Russia stepping up preparations to invade Ukraine as soon as early 2022.
Why it matters: Most of this was known from public sources and satellite imagery, but the administration is sending a stronger signal by releasing specific details from the intelligence community.
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Between the lines: Multiple sources who've seen the classified intelligence told Axios that some of Vladimir Putin’s covert actions make them think he's more serious about an invasion than he was when he menaced Ukraine in April with a large-scale troop build-up.
The White House is still trying to head off an invasion through diplomacy. President Biden's aides intensified rhetoric this week to counter what they call a Russian disinformation campaign to question the existence of evidence.
Ahead of a video call between Biden and Putin on Tuesday, the administration is holding intense conversations with allies and Russia and preparing a menu of possible responses, including heavy sanctions.
Ahead of the call, press secretary Jen Psaki on Saturday released a statement nothing that Biden plans to use Tuesday's conversation to "underscore U.S. concerns with Russian military activities on the border with Ukraine and reaffirm the United States’ support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."
The details: An administration official tells us the scale of Russian forces would be "twice what we saw this past spring during Russia’s rapid military buildup near Ukraine’s borders."
"The plans involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armor, artillery, and equipment," the official told us.
"We estimate half of these units are already near Ukraine’s border."
On the information warfare front, U.S. intelligence "indicates Russian influence proxies and media outlets have started to increase content denigrating Ukraine and NATO."
The bottom line: Putin has already achieved a substantial return on investment for his expensive whole-of-government operation to prepare for an invasion.
He's induced a state of panic inside Ukraine ... destabilized an already politically weakened leader in Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky ... and forced the West to scramble to figure out how to deter him — and whether to ultimately offer Putin concessions on his Ukrainian territorial ambitions.
Go deeper: On "Axios on HBO," Jonathan Swan presses NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on whether the alliance would do anything meaningful to defend Ukraine.
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