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Ukrainian soldiers take part in an exercise for the use of NLAW anti-tank missiles at the Yavoriv military training ground, close to Lviv, western Ukraine, on Jan. 28.Pavlo Palamarchuk/The Associated Press

The U.S. military is vowing to continue supplying weapons to Ukraine in the face of a potential Russian invasion, even as it confirms that Washington will not send American troops to take part in the fighting.

These two imperatives for President Joe Biden – making Russia suffer consequences if it attacks, while not miring U.S. forces in Ukraine – have Washington eyeing a complicated mix of economic sanctions on Moscow and military aid to Kyiv in a bid to prevent war.

U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon Friday that the U.S. was shipping Javelin anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers and ammunition to Ukrainian forces. Russia now has 100,000 troops massed at Ukraine’s borders – enough for a large-scale attack, they said.

“If Russia chooses to invade Ukraine, it will not be cost-free in terms of casualties,” Gen. Milley warned, before adding: “The United States has zero offensive combat weapons systems, nor any permanent forces, nor bases, in Ukraine.”

Similar measures have been tried before. Since 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine, the U.S. has slapped sanctions on Russia’s oil and banking sectors and sent US$2.7-billion worth of equipment and arms to Ukrainian forces. But that hasn’t ended Russia’s occupation of Crimea or its fomenting of insurrection in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

This means whatever options Mr. Biden chooses this time will have to be much stronger.

Paula Dobriansky, a former high-ranking official in the U.S. State Department, said the key is for the U.S. to move immediately, rather than react only after a Russian attack.

“We need to take very firm action now. Not just state what we’re going to do, but do it,” Ms. Dobriansky, now with the Atlantic Council think tank, said in an interview. “Putin responds to strength, not rhetoric.”

Kyiv has requested more military supplies, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, light-armoured vehicles and helicopters. Such weapons may not allow Ukraine to beat Russia’s much-larger military, but could deter Mr. Putin by making clear the heavy price his forces would pay. They also carry the risk of falling into the hands of Russian troops or Mr. Putin’s quislings in the event of a Ukrainian defeat.

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Washington has put 8,500 troops on “heightened” alert to be deployed to Eastern Europe, but could go a step further and pre-emptively deploy them, Ms. Dobriansky said. While these forces would not intervene in Ukraine, they would show the U.S. is prepared to defend area NATO members, including Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and the Baltic countries.

The U.S. is also mulling, along with its allies, an escalation of sanctions against Russia. These could include cutting Russian banks off from using U.S. dollars, kicking Moscow out of the SWIFT processing system for international financial transactions, stopping exports of key technologies used in smartphones and airplanes, and blocking the Nordstream 2 pipeline from exporting Russian gas to Germany. Another possibility is personally sanctioning Mr. Putin and his circle by cutting off their money and ability to travel.

Oleg Ignatov, a Moscow-based analyst with the International Crisis Group who once worked for the pro-Putin United Russia party, said that these sanctions would be “very tough” and a “huge hit” to Russia’s economy. In the Russian capital, he said, the general view is that Mr. Putin is sabre-rattling to get NATO to negotiate with him, and that he would not be willing to stomach the severe consequences the U.S. is considering.

“To think that Putin is going to wage a full-scale war, which will cut Russia off from the international stage, which will hit Russia’s society and economy – it’s against the common understanding of Putin in Russia,” Mr. Ignatov said. “The common thinking is that he’s rational, and this war looks irrational.”

Still, he added, the fact that the choice to invade will be Mr. Putin’s alone makes the outcome unpredictable. “The problem is that he’s the only decision-maker, and nobody knows his mind.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that the White House and foreign media were overhyping the possibility of an imminent Russian invasion, and that this was hurting his country’s economy.

“Do we have tanks in our streets? No. But if you’re not here, you get the sense from the media that there’s a war on. We don’t need this panic,” he said at a news conference.

The uncertainty over Mr. Putin’s intentions is one of the main problems confronting the U.S. It’s unclear, for instance, what he was thinking in insisting that NATO pre-emptively bar Ukraine from future membership in the alliance, a demand that was swiftly rejected.

“Did he put that out there because he knew it would be rejected and create a pretext to attack Ukraine, or did he put it out there to get some leverage on things the West might agree to?” said James Goldgeier, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank and former U.S. national security council official. “If this really is about overthrowing the government of Ukraine and he’s bent on doing it, then he may be willing to pay all of these costs.”

Mr. Biden’s decision to take American troops off the table contrasts with the U.S.’s reactions to similar situations in the past, such as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. It is an acknowledgment of the reality that the U.S. has no interest in sending its forces to fight another overseas war after failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Garret Martin, a professor at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, said Mr. Biden’s position is consistent with those of the Trump and Obama administrations, which were both reluctant to undertake direct military interventions.

The power of deterrence rests on making only threats that Mr. Putin believes the U.S. realistically would follow through on, Mr. Martin said. This was a lesson Mr. Biden learned the hard way as Barack Obama’s vice-president, when Mr. Obama backed down on a vow to retaliate against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons.

“You have to be careful of the credibility costs of making promises you may not want to keep in the future,” Mr. Martin said. “There’s a certain gain in credibility by making only promises you think you can hold.”

With a report from Mark MacKinnon in Kyiv

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