WASHINGTON — The Biden administration believes there is a “distinct possibility” Russia could invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 20, but U.S. officials do not believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a final decision yet.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan suggested on Friday that the threat of such an incursion is “now immediate enough” to warn Americans still in Ukraine to leave in the next 24 to 48 hours.
“We continue to see signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border. As we’ve said before, we are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time should Vladimir Putin decide to order it,” Sullivan told reporters at a White House briefing.
“I will not comment on the details of our intelligence information, but I do want to be clear, it could begin during the Olympics, despite a lot of speculation that it would only happen after the Olympics,” he added.
President Joe Biden, who is spending the weekend at Camp David, is scheduled to speak with Putin on Saturday morning, the White House said in a statement Friday. The last time the two leaders spoke was Dec. 30.
Biden recently warned Americans who remain in Ukraine to leave immediately, saying in an interview with NBC News on Thursday that sending troops into the country to rescue U.S. citizens would result in “world war.”
Sullivan insisted Friday that U.S. intelligence officials do not believe Putin has made a final decision on whether to invade Ukraine. He did say, however, that the U.S. has a “sufficient level of concern based on what we are seeing on the ground, and what our intelligence analysts have picked up that we are sending this clear message.”
“It is clear to us that there is a very distinct possibility that Russia will choose to act militarily and there is reason to believe that could happen on a reasonably swift timeframe,” Sullivan said when pressed about when an attack could unfold. “Now, we can’t pinpoint the day at this point, and we can’t pinpoint the hour, but what we can say is that there is a credible prospect that a Russian military action would take place, even before the end of the Olympics.”
A U.S. official told NBC News Friday there is new intelligence about the Russian military build-up that officials find very concerning, making them more convinced that an invasion is imminent.
The intelligence includes a finding that Moscow has gathered about 80 percent of the forces needed for a full-scale invasion, and that Russian troops have been moving closer to the border, the U.S. official said. In addition to the troop build-up, Russia has brought in Iskander missiles, a naval presence with land-attack cruise missiles and additional logistical support, including medical, the official added.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are also sounding the alarm.
Asked about the likelihood of Russia launching an attack on Ukraine, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told NBC News: “There’s no sign that Putin is backing down. If this is a bluff, it’s an incredibly expensive, ornate, complicated bluff. Because ultimately, it’s impossible to get inside his brain. But this certainly looks and feels like it’s happening.”
In his remarks to reporters, Sullivan said a Russian attack on Ukraine would likely begin with aerial bombing and missile attacks that “could obviously kill civilians without regard to their nationality.” An invasion could also involve a rapid assault on the city of Kyiv, Sullivan added, possibly seizing Ukraine’s capital.
The U.S. response would include “severe economic sanctions, with similar packages imposed by the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and other countries. It would also include changes to NATO and American-force posture along the eastern flank of NATO, and it would include continued support to Ukraine,” Sullivan said.
Echoing warnings communicated by Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken about Americans who remain in Ukraine, Sullivan said that U.S. citizens should leave “as soon as possible … in the next 24 to 48 hours.”
“We don’t know exactly what is going to happen, but the risk is now high enough and the threat is now immediate enough,” Sullivan said.
He made clear, however, that the U.S. doesn’t believe that an order has been given by Putin yet. “It may well happen, it may well happen soon,” Sullivan said.
On Friday morning, Biden participated in a virtual meeting with U.S. allies, including the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Poland and Romania. Other attendees included NATO’s secretary general and the presidents of the European Commission and European Council.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted Friday morning that his government has asked Russia to comply with the rules of war and tell them where they’re going to attack so they can try to minimize casualties.
Biden’s national security team met Thursday night in the White House situation room about the ongoing Russian military build-up on the border with Ukraine, a source familiar with the matter confirmed to NBC News.
Biden warned in the NBC interview this week that Americans who are still in Ukraine should immediately leave the country.
“American citizens should leave now,” Biden told “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt. “It’s not like we’re dealing with a terrorist organization. We’re dealing with one of the largest armies in the world. It’s a very different situation, and things could go crazy quickly.”
NBC News reported Wednesday that Americans who need assistance leaving Ukraine could be brought through Poland and would receive support from U.S. troops.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the deployment of 3,000 more U.S. soldiers to Poland, adding to the 1,700 troops the U.S. recently deployed to the country, a senior defense official said. Poland runs along the northwestern border of Ukraine. The extra 3,000 troops are the remaining soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Infantry Brigade Combat Team based at Fort Bragg, N.C. These troops will depart Fort Bragg over the next few days. They are expected to be in place by early next week, the official said.
Last week, administration officials announced that the U.S. was deploying about 3,000 troops to help defend European allies.
Sullivan emphasized that U.S. troops being sent to the region are not going meant to engage with Russia, but to provide defensive aid to NATO allies.
In addition to the nearly 2,000 deployed to Poland, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said that about 1,000 soldiers, part of a Stryker infantry unit, would be repositioned to Romania, which runs along Ukraine’s southwestern border.
Meanwhile, 300 members of the 18th Airborne Corps have arrived in Germany to establish a joint task force-capable headquarters.
French President Emmanuel Macron met with Putin face-to-face at the Kremlin earlier this week in an effort to pressure him to de-escalate the situation along Ukraine’s border. Meanwhile, Biden hosted Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, at the White House.
Biden on Friday traveled to Camp David, where he is expected to spend the weekend. Several senior advisers joined him on the trip, including Yohannes Abraham, deputy assistant to the president and chief of staff and executive secretary of the National Security Council.