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White House says Russia could invade Ukraine within the week

Vladimir Isachenkov
Associated Press

Washington – The White House said Friday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could come within the week, possibly within the next two days, even before the end of the Winter Olympics, and urged Americans to leave the country now. The message marked a sharp escalation in U.S. warnings about possibly impending military action.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States did not have definitive information that an invasion has been ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, he said all the pieces were in place for a major military operation that could start “rapidly” and possibly before the end of the Games on Jan. 20. Many had believed that Putin would not start any incursion into Ukraine until after the Chinese-hosted Olympics ended.

“We can’t pinpoint the day at this point, and we can’t pinpoint the hour, but that is a very, very distinct possibility,” Sullivan said. ”The strong possibility of action, the distinct possibility of action, in a relatively near term time frame … is backed up by our view of what’s happening on the ground.”

“We continue to see signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border,” he added, ramping up the urgency of earlier U.S. warnings. “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.”

“The risk is high enough and the threat is now immediate enough that prudence demands that it is the time to leave now,” Sullivan said, repeating a caution given to U.S. citizens in Ukraine earlier by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is currently in Australia.

“We are not saying that a decision has been taken by President Putin,” Sullivan said. “What we are saying is that we have 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.”

President Joe Biden spoke to a number of European leaders on Friday to underscore the concerns raised by U.S. intelligence about the potential imminence of a Russian invasion. Sullivan said the Western leaders were completely united and would respond harshly to a Russian invasion with devastating economic and trade sanctions.

Britain’s defense secretary, meanwhile, was visiting Moscow in another effort to ease tensions over a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

Russia is holding massive war games in neighboring Belarus and insisting that the highly strained relations is not its fault. Russia says it has no plans to invade but wants the West to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet countries out of NATO.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace speaks during a news conference following his meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the British Embassy in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.

Britain’s defense secretary visited Moscow on Friday in another effort to ease tensions over a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which held massive war games near its neighbor and insisted that the highly strained relations were “not at our fault.”

Ben Wallace’s trip came a day after British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also held talks in Moscow, urging Russia to pull back over 100,000 troops near Ukraine and warning that attacking its neighbor would “have massive consequences and carry severe costs.”

Russia says it has no plans to invade but wants the West to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet countries out of NATO. It also wants NATO to refrain from deploying weapons there and to roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe – demands flatly rejected by the West.

Speaking at the start of his talks with Wallace, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu noted that “the military-political situation in Europe is growing increasingly tense, and not at our fault.”

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows tents and a troop housing area in Kursk, approximately 110 kilometers to the east of the border with Ukraine, Russia on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)

He noted that shipments of weapons to Ukraine by the U.S., Britain and other allies have contributed to the tensions. He also pointed to the recent deployment of British soldiers to Ukraine and inquired why they were sent and how long they will stay.

Ukraine-Russia crisis: What to know about the fears of war

Speaking to reporters after the talks, Wallace noted that the anti-tank missiles that Britain sent to Ukraine were defensive tactical weapons that do not pose a threat to any neighbor unless it invades.

He said a number of British troops were deployed to Ukraine to help train its military to use the British weapons and will leave fairly soon after they accomplish that mission.

Wallace described the talks as “constructive and frank,” noting his Russian counterpart’s assurances that Moscow has no intention to attack Ukraine. But he also emphasized that the concentration of Russian troops near Ukrainian territory is clearly “beyond normal exercising.”

He warned again that a Russian invasion would have “tragic consequences” and emphasized the need to maintain contacts between military forces to prevent incidents.

In an interview Thursday with NBC News, U.S. President Joe Biden repeated his warning that any Americans still in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible.

“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,” he said.

Biden planned to hold a call with trans-Atlantic leaders later in the day.

Asked whether there were any scenarios that would prompt him to send U.S. troops to Ukraine to rescue Americans, the president said: “There’s not. That’s a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another.”

Speaking Friday on a visit to Australia, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not detail the reasons behind the latest State Department’s security alert urging all American citizens to leave Ukraine.

“We’re in a window when an invasion could begin at any time and, to be clear, that includes during the Olympics,” Blinken added. The Olympic Games are scheduled to end Feb. 20.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba played down the U.S. advice to Americans to leave, saying that Washington has made similar calls before. He noted that the situation remains volatile.

A Ukrainian soldier trains during military drills close to Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

Continuing its military buildup near Ukraine, Russia has moved six amphibious assault vessels into the Black Sea, augmenting its capability to land marines on the coast.

Moscow has announced sweeping drills in the Black and Azov seas in the coming days and closed large areas for commercial shipping, drawing a strong protest from Ukraine on Thursday.

Kuleba voiced hope that the West would react to the Russian move, saying that “we have engaged our partners to prepare a coordinated response.”

Russia’s troop concentration includes forces deployed on the territory of its ally Belarus for massive joint drills involving firing live ammunition. Those exercises entered a decisive phase Thursday and will run through Feb. 20. The Ukrainian capital is about 75 kilometers (47 miles) south of the Belarus border.

NATO has stepped up military deployments to bolster its eastern flank, with the U.S. sending troops to Poland and Romania.

The U.S. Navy said Thursday that it has deployed four destroyers from the United States to European waters. The Navy did not directly tie this deployment to the Ukraine crisis but said the ships provide “additional flexibility” to the U.S. Sixth Fleet commander, whose area of responsibility includes the Mediterranean, and will operate in support of NATO allies.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visited a military base in Romania, hailing the ongoing deployment of 1,000 additional U.S. troops that will nearly double their current number there.

“This is a powerful demonstration of trans-Atlantic unity,” Stoltenberg said.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded by noting that “NATO keeps building up its presence near Russia’s borders and exacerbates the situation around Ukraine to create a pretext for that.”

Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly leader was driven from office by a popular uprising. Moscow responded by annexing Crimea and then backing a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed over 14,000 people.

A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped halt large-scale battles, but regular skirmishes have continued, and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled. The Kremlin has accused Kyiv of sabotaging the agreement, and Ukrainian officials argued in recent weeks that implementing it would hurt their country.

Foreign policy advisers from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine held nearly nine hours of talks in Berlin on Thursday to try to revive the stalled agreement but made no progress.

The Berlin talks were part of renewed diplomatic efforts to resolve the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who discussed the standoff with Biden earlier this week, plans to visit Kyiv and Moscow on Monday and Tuesday.

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Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.