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US suggests Winter Olympics could influence Russia’s military planning in Ukraine

By Jennifer Hansler and Jeremy Herb, CNN

A senior US official suggested Wednesday that the Winter Olympics beginning next week in China could affect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculations over a possible invasion of Ukraine.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said that the Winter Olympics in Beijing could impact Putin’s thinking about potential military action, noting at a virtual European think tank event Wednesday that she thinks Chinese President Xi Jinping “would not be ecstatic if Putin chose that moment to invade Ukraine.”

The Beijing Olympics kick off at the beginning of February and Putin plans to be there, Sherman added.

There’s some history involving Russia’s military action and the Olympics. Russia’s invasion of Crimea occurred in 2014 just as the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, were wrapping up. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia during the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The Biden administration has been warning that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent as Moscow has amassed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine. The Pentagon on Monday announced up to 8,500 troops were placed on heightened alert for a possible deployment to Eastern Europe to support NATO countries amid Russia’s escalation.

On Monday, China’s foreign ministry denied a report that it might have asked Putin not to further invade Ukraine during the Winter Olympics. The response came in reference to a Bloomberg article, which cited an unnamed diplomatic source in Beijing who raised the possibility that Chinese President Xi Jinping had asked Putin to not invade Ukraine during the Games in a call between the two leaders in December.

“The report is purely made up out of thin air. It seeks not only to smear and drive a wedge in China-Russia relations, but also to deliberately disrupt and undermine the Beijing Winter Olympics,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in a briefing Monday.

The Kremlin also denied the reporting, calling it “fake news and a way to inflame tensions,” Russian state news agency TASS reported Monday.

Sherman, who did not suggest the US had any intelligence on how the Olympics could influence the Kremlin’s actions surrounding Ukraine, said Wednesday she suspects that “even the people around” Putin don’t know what he will do. But she said the US sees “every indication that he is going to use military force, sometime perhaps now and middle of February.”

“I think they know the plans of setting up the military to be ready to go, and to have plans to make use of the military, but I suspect the President has other plans in mind as well. And I have no idea if he’s made the ultimate decision,” she said at an event hosted by Yalta European Strategy.

The Winter Olympics run from February 4 through February 20.

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