Biden: Putin Has Decided to Invade Ukraine

But the United States is still trying to deny Russia a pretext for war.

By , , and
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a national update.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a national update.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a national update on the situation at the Russia-Ukraine border at the White House in Washington on Feb. 18. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The United States now believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden said.

“We have reason to believe that Russian forces are planning and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, coming days,” said Biden, who spoke shortly after convening a call with heads of state from European and NATO allies. Biden said the attack would target Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

Biden’s warning, which he based on an intelligence finding that is not public, is a sharp escalation in the United States assessment of Putin’s plans. Until recently, U.S. officials signaled they believed the Russian leader had not yet made a call on whether to launch a renewed invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this week, Biden said an invasion was likely and that Russia could attack “within days,” but he did not explicitly state that Putin had made the decision.

The United States now believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden said.

“We have reason to believe that Russian forces are planning and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, coming days,” said Biden, who spoke shortly after convening a call with heads of state from European and NATO allies. Biden said the attack would target Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

Biden’s warning, which he based on an intelligence finding that is not public, is a sharp escalation in the United States assessment of Putin’s plans. Until recently, U.S. officials signaled they believed the Russian leader had not yet made a call on whether to launch a renewed invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this week, Biden said an invasion was likely and that Russia could attack “within days,” but he did not explicitly state that Putin had made the decision.

Despite the warning, Biden said he still holds out hope for a diplomatic offramp to the crisis until the last point. “Until he does [invade], diplomacy is always a possibility,” he said.

Russia has tentatively agreed to an U.S. invitation to hold talks between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Europe on Feb. 24. If Russia invades before that point, Biden said, Putin will have “slammed the door shut on diplomacy” and will face stiff U.S.-led sanctions. On Friday, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh said U.S. sanctions in response to a Russian invasion would be “among the most severe financial sanctions that have ever been contemplated” but noted that removing Russia from SWIFT, the global financial messaging system, would likely not be included in any initial sanctions package.

Russia is conducting drills with its nuclear forces this weekend, further raising the stakes of a Western showdown on Ukraine. However, Biden discounted the possibility of Putin using nuclear weapons in any invasion plan.

“I dont think he is remotely contemplating using nuclear weapons, but I do think he is focused on trying to convince the world he has the ability to change the dynamics in Europe in a way that he cannot,” Biden said.

Speaking at the United Nations on Thursday, Blinken said Russia could plan to fabricate a supposed terrorist bombing inside Russia, mock the discovery of a mass grave, or stage a false or real attack with chemical weapons—all of which Russia would amplify through state-backed media channels. The United States anticipates that Russia may describe the actions as an act of ethnic cleansing or genocide by Ukraine, and Putin could claim he was forced to act to defend Russians on Ukrainian soil before launching devastating air and missile salvos, leading to a ground invasion.

Ukrainian and Western officials have repeatedly warned that Russia may attempt to stage a so-called false flag operation, manufacturing a crisis by either escalating the conflict in the Donbass or staging atrocities, to justify an invasion. Many observers fear that efforts to create such a pretext may already be underway.

On Friday, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine announced plans to evacuate civilians claiming, without evidence, that the Ukrainian Armed Forces were planning an assault on the region. Metadata shows that the videos, released today, were recorded earlier in the week, on the very day the United States suggested Russia might invade. Also on Friday, Russia signaled a car bomb that detonated in Donetsk, Ukraine, near the regional government’s headquarters, as a potential terrorist attack.

Ukrainian officials publicly pushed back against the claims, stating they had no intention of launching an offensive operation in the region.

“It’s so bizarre and so cynical how they are doing that,” said Kaimo Kuusk, the Estonian ambassador to Ukraine.

On Friday, Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency warned that a number of buildings in Donetsk had been mined by Russian security services. “These measures are aimed at destabilizing the situation in the temporarily occupied territories of our state and creating grounds for accusing Ukraine of terrorist acts,” the agency wrote on Twitter.

Also on Friday, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Anne Neuberger said Washington had attributed Tuesday’s cyberattack on Ukrainian banks and Ministry of Defense servers to Russia. Although it usually takes time to attribute the perpetrator of a cyberattack, Neuberger said the United States had technical information that linked the attacks back to Russian military intelligence and was moving quickly to expose Moscow’s activity.

Russia has also compiled lists of political dissidents and other vulnerable minorities it would target for arrest or even assassination if it goes forward with invasion plans, as U.S. officials familiar with intelligence matters told Foreign Policy, in another indication of the extent to which Moscow has mapped out possible invasion plans.

A coterie of top U.S. government officials and lawmakers are in Europe this week to shore up support for Washington’s allies in the region and try to defuse the crisis. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with NATO defense ministers in Brussels this week and then traveled to Poland and Lithuania. Meanwhile, Blinken and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris went to Munich on Friday for an annual security conference, where they met top European leaders and reaffirmed NATO’s support for Ukraine. Harris met with the NATO secretary-general and the leaders of the three Baltic countries on the alliance’s eastern flank, which are among the most concerned nations about Russia’s amassing of forces against Ukraine.

For newer NATO members on Russia’s border, like Estonia, one of three Baltic states to declare independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian cause is personal.

“We have all lost our independence to Russia once, and we don’t want it to happen again,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said at the meeting with Harris. “We understand what is at stake here.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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

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