White House Warns Russian Invasion of Ukraine Could be Imminent

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, said Moscow could “in very short order” invade its neighbor again.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks at the White House.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks at the White House.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks during the White House press briefing on a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 11. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Russia could begin another invasion of Ukraine starting with deadly air and missile salvos before the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics next week, the top U.S. national security official said on Friday.

While National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that current U.S. intelligence did not indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made the decision to invade—as some outlets reported earlier—he echoed public warnings from top administration officials that a further Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin any day now.

“Russia has all the forces it needs to conduct a major military action,” Sullivan told reporters from the White House podium on Friday. “Russia could choose in very short order to commence a major military action against Ukraine.”

Russia could begin another invasion of Ukraine starting with deadly air and missile salvos before the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics next week, the top U.S. national security official said on Friday.

While National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that current U.S. intelligence did not indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made the decision to invade—as some outlets reported earlier—he echoed public warnings from top administration officials that a further Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin any day now.

“Russia has all the forces it needs to conduct a major military action,” Sullivan told reporters from the White House podium on Friday. “Russia could choose in very short order to commence a major military action against Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, the United States has continued to take precautionary measures and has urged U.S. citizens who are still in Ukraine to leave immediately. Sullivan said that the Biden administration had instructed diplomats to continue to reduce the footprint of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Some—but not all—U.S. allies have followed suit, based on intelligence assessments that Sullivan would not elaborate on in his briefing. The British Foreign Office issued a new alert on Friday advising all British nationals left in the country to leave “immediately.” Israel also is evacuating its embassy staff and diplomats’ families, and the European Union has encouraged nonessential diplomats to leave.

“We want to be crystal clear on this point: Any American in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible, and in any event, in the next 24 to 48 hours,” Sullivan told reporters. “No one would be able to count on air, road, or rail departures once military action got underway.” Nor would U.S. troops be going into a war zone to extract Americans who chose not to leave, Sullivan added. On Friday, the Biden administration approved the deployment of an additional 3,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division to Poland, a senior defense official said, bringing the grand total of Pentagon deployments in the country to nearly 5,000 troops.

Sullivan said he expected that U.S. President Joe Biden would talk with Putin by telephone in the coming days. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is set to meet Putin at the Kremlin on Tuesday. The Beijing Olympics are set to end on Feb. 20. In an ominous sign, top Russian officials have already indicated that they do not plan to attend the Munich Security Conference in Germany that starts on Feb. 18, a possible sign that Moscow sees a dead end in the diplomatic road after openly fuming at Western officials this week.

But as Foreign Policy previously reported, officials have indicated that Russia has continued to look for a pretext to launch a further invasion of Ukraine, such as a false flag operation to pin the blame on Ukrainians. Sullivan cautioned on Friday that the United States could not pinpoint the day or hour of a possible invasion.

Since Russia first began building up a larger troop presence on Ukraine’s border in early 2021, the Biden administration has been locked in tense debates over whether to provide more arms to Ukraine, with the White House fearing that going too far could provoke the Kremlin over protests from officials in the State and Defense departments. But as the Russian buildup has intensified since November, the debate has changed within the administration. The United States provided more than $600 million in defensive weapons to Ukraine over the past year.

Yet Russia still has the capacity to invade. Sullivan said that a Russian invasion would likely begin with aerial bombing and missile attacks, with a subsequent ground invasion that could quickly cut off communications within the country and ground commercial flights. Sullivan also indicated that the Biden administration saw “very real possibilities” that Russia could bite off larger chunks of territory, including a rapid assault on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and other major cities.

Even with the prospect of a further—and potentially bloody—invasion looming, the Biden administration has insisted that Putin’s plans could backfire. With more European states eyeing NATO membership and Western troops surging into Eastern Europe, American officials believe the Kremlin will have a more resilient alliance to contend with if it goes ahead.

“The West is more united than it’s been in years,” Sullivan said.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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