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U.S. officials warn a Russian invasion would ‘repress’ and ‘crush’ Ukrainians

U.S. officials warned Monday of a brutal, bloody war if Russia invades Ukraine, one that will be waged against innocent Ukrainian people and designed to “repress,” “crush” and “harm” them. Also, Russian and Belarusian dissidents living in Ukraine, as well the LGBTQI+ community, could face special danger.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said an invasion could begin in the coming days or in the “coming hours,” as Moscow stands ready to attack with as many as 190,000 forces moving toward the Ukrainian border from multiple sides. He stressed the human rights element in particular.

“We believe that any military operation of the size, scope and magnitude of what we believe the Russians are planning will be extremely violent,” Sullivan said on NBC’s “Today” show. “But we also have intelligence to suggest there will be an even greater form of brutality because this will not simply be some conventional war between two armies. It will be a war waged by Russia on the Ukrainian people to repress them, to crush them, to harm them.”

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby affirmed Sullivan’s assessment, warning of a “bloody” war. “This is not a military that is known for respecting innocent civilian life,” Kirby said on CNN.

The public warnings come as the U.S. has intelligence that suggests Russia might force cooperation through targeted killings and kidnappings of certain opposition leaders and groups, a U.S. official told POLITICO. Details of Russian intentions were first reported by Foreign Policy.

“These acts, which in past Russian operations have included targeted killings, kidnappings/forced disappearances, detentions, and the use of torture, would likely target those who oppose Russian actions, including Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, journalists and anti-corruption activists, and vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons,” said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Russian and Belarusian dissidents, many who fled to Ukraine after various crackdowns on pro-democracy movements, face unique challenges because they require visas to travel to other countries in Europe. The official said the U.S. supports organizations in Ukraine that work with vulnerable populations but urged those organizations to implement contingency plans now.

“If they wait to see news of an invasion in the media, it may already be too late,” the official said.

Palina Brodik, coordinator of the Free Belarus Center in Kyiv, said the organization has already launched a second office in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, where the U.S. also has relocated some of its embassy staff. The center assists Belarusians in Ukraine, many of whom fled the repressive, Kremlin-allied regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

In an email to POLITICO, Brodik said she and others are trying to keep cool heads.

“Even though the risks of full-fledged intervention are high as never before, the situation will not change in one day and Kyiv will not surrender overnight,” she wrote. “We all believe in the power of the Ukrainian army and the support of Western partners.”

Still, the center is preparing for the worst. “The team has gone through first aid training and now we are organizing such training sessions for other Belarusians,” Brodik said.

Mikhail Savva, a Russian dissident living in Ukraine, said he’s been physically and psychologically preparing, and that he’s even willing to fight the invading forces.

“I am in very good physical shape and have intensified my workouts,” Savva wrote in an email. “I bought clothes and shoes that can be worn for a long time in the field in winter.”

Savva appealed to Western countries to support the creation of “a headquarters for Ukrainian civil society abroad.” At the same time, he argued that human rights field work inside Ukraine will be more important than ever.

“It will be necessary to record war crimes in order to someday find and punish the people who committed these crimes,” he wrote.

Belarus said last week that the 30,000 Russian troops deployed to their country will stay, even after the military exercises they were conducting wrapped up Sunday.

That announcement contradicted weeks of promises from Russian and Belarusian officials that the troops would pack up their equipment as soon as the drills ended.

The continued presence of so many Russian troops is seen in some European capitals as further evidence that Belarus has lost some control over its own territory under Russian pressure.

“We know if Russian troops are entering some territory or country they are not going to leave by themselves,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told POLITICO on Monday. “I don’t see any signs of political autonomy in the Lukashenka regime. He is a puppet at this moment. He’s totally at the mercy of the Kremlin.

“[Lukashenko] was playing, for quite a long time, this maneuvering game between the East and West, and now his possibility to maneuver has shifted,” Pabriks added. “It’s finished.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized two breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine as independent, leading to swift condemnation from Western leaders. The so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic border Russia, and have been the scene of eight years of fighting between Russian-backed fighters and the Ukrainian government.

The White House said Monday it was prepared for the move and is ready to respond “immediately” with sanctions. President Joe Biden will sign an executive order to “prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine” as well as “provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday the executive order would “prevent Russia from profiting off of this blatant violation of international law,” but that it was not designed to impact Ukrainians or the Ukrainian government.

It will also allow “humanitarian and other related activity to continue in these regions.”

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