President Biden on Friday said Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and that an attack could come within days.
“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision,” Mr. Biden said. “We have reason to believe that.”
Until Friday, Mr. Biden and administration officials had stressed that they didn’t know whether Mr. Putin made up his mind to attack.
Asked why he’s convinced Mr. Putin intends to attack Ukraine, Mr. Biden cited “very significant intelligence,” without elaborating.
The president also said the window for diplomacy will remain open up until the moment Mr. Putin launches an attack on Ukraine. He said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet in Europe on Feb. 24.
“If Russia takes military action before that date, it will be clear that they have slammed the door shut on diplomacy,” he said. “They will have chosen war and they will pay a steep price for doing so. Not only from the sanctions that we and our allies will impose on Russia, but the more outrage the rest of the world will visit upon them.”
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Mr. Biden also warned about the flurry of misinformation Russia has been releasing as the threat of a Ukraine invasion rises. He said there has been “a major uptick” in violations of the ceasefire agreement by Russian-backed fighters seeking to provoke Ukraine.
He pushed back on the Kremlin’s claims that Ukraine is planning to launch a massive offensive on the fighters, saying “it defies logic” that it would escalate the conflict with thousands of Russian troops massed on its border.
It was Mr. Biden’s second speech on Ukraine this week.
He said of a Russian invasion, “We believe they will target the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.”
Russia, which has repeatedly denied planning to invade Ukraine, has dismissed Western fears of an invasion as “hysteria.”
The Kremlin, for its part, accused the Biden administration of continuing to hype false reports of pending military action, even as the Russian press was full of reports of alleged aggression by Ukrainian forces against a pair of pro-Russian separatist enclaves in far eastern Ukraine.
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Earlier Friday, the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Michael Carpenter, warned that Russia has massed between 169,000 and 190,000 troops near Ukraine, up from roughly 100,000 at the end of January.
Prior to his address, Mr. Biden spoke with allies in North America and Europe about the Ukraine crisis. The call is the latest in a flurry of high-level talks among Western leaders about the threat of a Russian invasion.
Vice President Kamala Harris is in Germany for the Munich Security Conference, where she met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Ms. Harris recommitted the U.S. to NATO and warned Russia that it will face “severe consequences” if it invades Ukraine. She added that the U.S. is still pursuing diplomacy with Russia.
“We remain, of course, open to and desirous of diplomacy as it relates to the dialogue and the discussions we have had with Russia,” Ms. Harris said. “But we are also committed, if Russia takes aggressive action, to ensuring there will be severe consequences in terms of the economic sanctions we have discussed. And we know the alliance is strong in that regard.”
She is scheduled to meet with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a day after a blistering U.N. Security Council address all but accusing Moscow of having decided on war, dismissed again on Friday Russian claims that Moscow still favored a diplomatic end to the crisis.
“We are deeply concerned that that is not the path that Russia has embarked on,” Mr. Blinken said in a joint press appearance with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
“Everything that we’re seeing – including what you’ve described in the last 24, 48 hours – is part of a scenario that is already in play of creating false provocations, then having to respond to those provocations, and then ultimately committing new aggression against Ukraine,” Mr. Blinken said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, meanwhile, was in Poland, meeting with top officials of the NATO ally and visiting a Polish military base where U.S. troops are stationed.
Mr. Austin announced that the Biden administration has agreed to sell 250 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks to Poland, the latest in a string of weapons deals and troop deployments meant to bolster NATO’s eastern flank with Russia.
Washington and Moscow confirmed Thursday that Mr. Blinken has agreed to meet Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov next week for another round of talks — provided, said a State Department spokesman, that “there is no further Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
The leaders of the separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk announced a massive evacuation of civilians in their territories, saying it was a precaution in the face of looming action by Ukraine.
Both sides in the stalemated civil war are claiming the other has engaged in intensified shelling across the de facto separation line.
Oleksiy Danilov, who heads the Kyiv government’s National Security and Defense Council, denied in a Friday briefing there were any plans to move against the separatist forces, action that would almost certainly draw in nearby Russian forces.
But he and other top Ukrainian officials downplayed the stark warnings from Washington about an imminent war.
“I want to assure our citizens that we understand the threats, but we do not see a full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Mr. Danilov said, according to the Ukrainian Interfax news service. “But as for provocations, they already exist.”
U.S. and NATO officials have rejected Mr. Putin‘s demands that Ukraine be forever barred from joining the Western military alliance and NATO forces.