Russian-Ukrainian crisis: US officials issue new round of warnings to Moscow over signs of impending invasion

Vice President Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Biden’s assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin made the decision to invade within days.

“Everything leading up to a real invasion seems to be happening,” Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

US officials have warned that Russia is likely to invade Ukraine in the near future as diplomatic talks continue on February 20. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

But Blinken and European officials are still leaving the door open for a diplomatic solution, with French President Emmanuel Macron trying to broker a last-minute ceasefire deal.

Although senior US officials say they believe Putin made the decision to invade, Blinken said they “will use every opportunity and every minute we have” to see if Putin can be deterred. Blinken sought to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov again this week. “The plan is still to do it – unless Russia invades in the meantime,” Blinken said.

As The Washington Post first reported on Saturday, Biden grew confident in Putin’s invasion plans after receiving a report that the US intelligence community became aware of an order given to Russian subordinates to carry out a large-scale attack, according to several people familiar with the matter.

The United States gained intelligence on the order as Russian military and security officials took steps to implement it, and did so very recently, the people said.

Biden convened a rare meeting of the National Security Council in the White House Situation Room on Sunday, speaking to top advisers including Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Harris called from Air Force Two on the way back to Washington from Munich, said an administration official who, like others in this article, spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the question.

A senior administration official said the meeting lasted about two hours and touched on recent diplomatic conversations and the work of the Treasury Department, which oversees the sanctions. The officials also referred to efforts by the Defense Ministry, which has deployed thousands of troops to Romania, Bulgaria and Poland in recent days to reassure NATO allies in the region.

Biden’s schedule changed several times on Sunday, canceling his trip to his home state of Delaware for Presidents Day in order to stay in the White House.

More than 150,000 Russian soldiers are assembled on the Ukrainian border, marking the largest military build-up in Europe since the end of World War II. The decision to extend military exercises in Belarus has raised concerns among Western officials, who noted the country was offering the Kremlin a shortened path to attack Ukraine’s capital of Kiev from the north.

Belarus military chief Viktor Khrenin cited ‘increased military activity’ near his border and ‘worsening of the situation’ in eastern Ukraine as reasons for continuing drills joint with Russia.

Khrenin said the military would continue the exercises “to ensure adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations from the bad guys near our common borders.” Just four days ago, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told the Post that “not a single military” and “not a single piece of military equipment” from Russia would remain in Belarus after the end of the exercises.

The US government remains concerned about US citizens in Russia facing unexpected violence. In a new security alert on Sunday, the State Department warned of threats to shopping malls, train stations and other public gathering places in major urban areas, including Moscow, and advised Americans to Pay attention to their surroundings and avoid crowds.

Blinken reiterated that Americans in Ukraine should not rely on the US government to evacuate them. The United States will have consular services available along Ukraine’s border with Poland, “but in terms of evacuation, that’s not going to happen,” the secretary said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

In a Facebook post on Sunday evening, the Ukrainian military claimed that “Russian occupation forces” had carried out “yet another provocation” aimed at wrongly implicating Ukrainian troops in the violence. In this case, heavy fire was aimed at Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine.

“As the defenders of Ukraine refrain from any act of aggression likely to trigger a violent reaction, the occupying forces continue to destroy civilian infrastructure in the temporarily occupied territories and sporadically bombard civilian settlements,” the statement said. “It is obvious that the adversary continues to use the Russian propaganda machine to wage information warfare, wrongly accuse the Ukrainian armed forces and further escalate the situation.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday pleaded with Western governments to reveal their plans for sanctions against Russia to serve as a deterrent, while accusing the leaders of appeasing the Russians. U.S. officials said they did not do so to prevent Russia from taking steps to avoid or soften sanctions blows.

Blinken said on Sunday that the United States and its European partners had crafted a “massive sanctions package” against Russia, and that their goal was to deter Russia from going to war.

“As soon as you trigger them, that deterrent is gone,” Blinken said. “And until the last minute, as long as we can try to deter that, we’ll try to do that.”

Harris, speaking to reporters after attending a security conference in Munich, said officials were planning “some of the biggest, if not the strongest, sanctions we’ve ever issued”, and said that they would “cause absolute harm to the Russian economy and their government” if Russia invades.

But she warned that even though the Biden administration has ruled out sending US troops to fight in Ukraine, the crisis could affect Americans.

“In this situation, it may be related to energy costs, for example,” Harris said. “But we are taking very specific and appropriate steps, I believe, to mitigate what that cost could be if that happened.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby also defended the decision to wait for new sanctions to be triggered. While what is planned is “unprecedented,” Kirby said, Russia has yet to invade.

“If you’re punishing someone for something they haven’t done yet, then you might as well go ahead and do it,” Kirby said on “Fox News Sunday.” “So we are keeping this upfront and hope that it might affect Mr. Putin’s calculation.”

The sanctions talks came as the international community waited to see if Putin would unleash an assault on Kyiv and the human suffering that would come with it.

Austin, speaking on ABC’s “This Week” warned that Putin could take control of the capital very quickly.

“We see a lot of tanks and armored vehicles there. We see a lot of artillery. We see rocket forces,” Austin said in an interview recorded Friday while in Poland. “If he employs that kind of combat power, it will certainly create huge casualties among the civilian population.”

Austin said the planned sanctions “have effects Mr. Putin hasn’t realized before,” and predicted they will affect Russian citizens as well.

“The decisions he makes now will cause a lot of pain and suffering for his comrades in Russia,” Austin said.

Russia’s continued bellicose posture and constant artillery fire in breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine have dimmed hopes for a diplomatic resolution to the impasse.

Still, Macron spoke with Putin for about 90 minutes on Sunday, according to reports from the Kremlin pool. Macron’s office said the two leaders agreed to resume diplomatic talks as part of the Normandy Format talks, an arrangement established seven years ago by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and for the French and Russian foreign ministers to meet in the coming days.

The Kremlin’s statement was more vague, saying that “given the acuteness of the current situation, the presidents have seen fit to intensify the search for solutions through diplomatic means.”

Biden spoke with Macron on a separate call for about 15 minutes, and Macron also called British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday evening.

Macron’s office said the French president had proposed a summit between Biden and Putin, the details of which could be worked out by Blinken and Lavrov, if they meet later this week.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was the “last country” to talk about war. Peskov called on the United States and the NATO military alliance to listen to reason and ask themselves why Russia would attack anyone. He added that the West is fueling hysteria with allegations of a Russian attack, even as Russian troops and weapons appear to be closing in on the Ukrainian border.

Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, said in a controversial interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Russia had withdrawn many troops from the Kaliningrad region “and nobody even sent us of thanks”. Kaliningrad is nestled between Poland and Lithuania and does not border Ukraine.

Antonov denied there were any invasion plans and said Russia had the right to deploy wherever it wanted on its own territory.

“Russian troops are on sovereign Russian territory,” Antonov said, overlooking Russian forces he also has in Belarus and Moldova, another former Soviet state. “I would like to emphasize once again that this is our own territory. Can you even imagine that Russia will force the United States not to deploy your forces in Florida or San Francisco?

Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, said in a separate interview on the same program that over the past few days Ukraine has seen a clear difference between what Russian officials have claimed and do.

“As we prepare to defend our country, we are using every possibility to continue to choose the diplomatic path and to force Russia to choose the diplomatic path,” Markarova said. “We call on not only the aggressor, which is Russia, but also all of our friends and allies to come together and seize every opportunity to deter Russia from further invasion.”

Lamothe and Wang reported from Washington, Khurshudyan from Severodonetsk, Ukraine, and Dixon from Moscow. Sean Sullivan, Ashley Parker, Sammy Westfall and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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