As Russian Troops Stay at Ukraine Border, Biden Officials See a Message

WASHINGTON — Russia has withdrawn only a few thousand troops from the border with Ukraine, senior Biden administration officials said, despite signals from Moscow last month that it was dialing down tensions in the volatile region.

Senior Defense Department officials said that close to 80,000 Russian troops remained near various strips of the country’s border with Ukraine, still the biggest force Russia has amassed there since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.

The Russian military did order some units back to their barracks by May 1 — and they did move from the border — the officials said. But many of the units left their trucks and armored vehicles behind, a signal that they could go back if President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia decided to deploy them again.

President Biden said on Tuesday that it was his “hope and expectation” that he would meet with Mr. Putin during a trip to Europe in June that includes attending a NATO summit in Brussels. The administration has paired the offer of a meeting, an important symbol of Moscow’s continuing influence on the world stage, with a toughening of sanctions on Russia for its cyberattacks, election meddling, threats against Ukraine and poisoning of Aleksei A. Navalny, the opposition leader.

Administration officials said they were taking the sustained troop presence at the Ukrainian border as a message from Mr. Putin that he could match — and, in fact, dwarf — the number of troops taking part in American and NATO exercises in Europe. The American-led exercise, called Defender Europe, officially began on Tuesday. It includes about 28,000 troops from the United States and European allies participating in maneuvers over the next two months across Albania and other parts of Eastern Europe on Mr. Putin’s doorstep. And over the next month, NATO will lead another exercise, called Steadfast Defender 21, in Romania and Portugal.

Military analysts have noted that Mr. Putin’s troop deployment was clearly intended to be visible, an effort at muscle-flexing and part of standard operating procedure for the Kremlin, especially at the beginning of a new American presidency. Mr. Putin could well be looking for ways to test Mr. Biden’s resolve, officials said. But the danger is that any military buildup could spiral out of control, or prompt a deeper crisis.

“For all of the deliberative strategy, there is a standing risk of things going wrong, signals being misinterpreted,” said Ian Lesser, the vice president of the German Marshall Fund. “An aircraft could be shot down. Something could happen.”

American officials say they remain unsure what exactly Mr. Putin’s aims are in his troop surge or in his decision so far not to follow through completely on the withdrawal announcement. That ambiguity could be part of the Russian leader’s calculations.

“They have retained a rather lethal force in the region and have only pulled back some forces,” said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, a retired former commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in Europe who is now NATO’s special operations adviser to Ukraine.

“That tells me they may want to come back later when timing and circumstances are more advantageous to Russia,” General Repass said. “This will happen again.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will be in Kyiv on Thursday “to reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression,” the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said in a statement. But Mr. Blinken will also be looking for ways to lower the temperature in the region, officials said. He will talk about Ukraine’s NATO ambitions — Kyiv wants to join the alliance, a move that would provoke fury in Moscow.

“The big NATO exercise almost certainly has influenced that Russian decision to maintain a significant troop presence on the Russian-Ukrainian border,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former NATO commander. “The message Vladimir Putin seeks to send is simple: Ukraine should not even think about a NATO membership. Nor should NATO offer one. Any move in that direction will lead to a Russian intervention.”

Some American officials say the troop deployment is essentially intended to call the bluff of the United States and Europe — and to make clear to Kyiv the limits of Western support. Russia, these officials say, wants to prompt a reaction from the West, but a reaction that will fall short of the hopes of the Ukrainian government.

Russia may have already achieved that goal. The United States has said it is prepared to impose further sanctions on Moscow and voiced strong support for Ukraine. But Mr. Biden’s administration has taken no steps to move forward with NATO membership or significantly increase military aid to Kyiv.

The supply of water for Crimea remains a key friction point. If Russia makes an incursion into more Ukrainian-controlled territory, it could be to loosen sharp controls over the Crimean water supply that Ukraine put in after the 2014 annexation.

Senior American officials believe an incursion to secure the water supply remains a real threat. Moscow has played with the boundaries of occupied territories elsewhere; Russian forces regularly shift the boundary of their control of the occupied parts of Georgia.

But the water issue has been brewing for seven years and Russia has never made any such moves to seize control of the supply. Moving out of Crimea and into other parts of Ukrainian territory would bring a strong reaction from the international community, and Russian officials would have to decide whether it was worth the cost, both financially and diplomatically.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security and a former senior intelligence official specializing in Russia, said any operation by Moscow to take control of the water supply would be difficult. “It requires Russian forces to take it, garrison it and maintain control over it, which would be costly over the long run,” she said.

Moscow had been spooked by the Ukrainian government’s perceived shift to a more anti-Russia policy stance, Ms. Kendall-Taylor said. “The Russian moves are primarily to put pressure on Ukrainians, while also trying to expose the limits of what the U.S. and Europe will do for Ukraine,” she said.

The Biden administration could increase military aid to Ukraine to counter Moscow. But that, again, demands a balancing act, senior administration officials said. The trick would be bolstering the Ukrainian military so that an invasion by Russia looks as if it could be a slog, but not strengthening the military to the point where Russia feels it is threatened and has to act.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.