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US warns war could be ‘imminent’ in Ukraine

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The United States warned Friday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent and implored all U.S. citizens to urgently leave the country within 24 to 48 hours.

The warning came after Washington briefed allies on a scenario in which Russian forces would pour across the border from Belarus, accompanied by cyberattacks and missile strikes.

The U.S. intelligence briefing included specific reference to next Wednesday, February 16, as a start date for the ground invasion, three officials — based in Washington, London and Ukraine — told POLITICO.

In addition to the U.S., the United Kingdom, Latvia, Denmark, Israel, Estonia, Norway, Japan and South Korea all directed their citizens to leave Ukraine as soon as possible.

At a White House news briefing, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan declined to describe specific intelligence, but insisted the attack could begin before the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on February 20.

“We are not saying that a decision has been taken — a final 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.”

Still, Sullivan’s comments amounted to the starkest warning yet by the U.S. that the Kremlin was on the verge of starting a war — the first conventional military conflict on European soil between two sovereign nations since World War II.

“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 said, adding: “If you stay, you are assuming risk with no guarantee that there will be any other opportunity to leave and no prospect of a U.S. military evacuation in the event of a Russian invasion.”

Officials and diplomats said that Sullivan’s public comments were more measured than confidential briefings provided to diplomats, in which the U.S. cited next Wednesday as the potential start of an invasion, warned that cyberattacks should be expected even sooner, perhaps imminently; and announced that it would direct all its own citizens to leave Ukraine.

Amid the heightened anxiety, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, announced that U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin would speak on Saturday at the request of the U.S. “Indeed, the American side has asked for a talk with President Putin, and a talk between the two presidents is planned tomorrow evening, Moscow time,” Peskov told Russian news agencies.

As a result of the latest intelligence reports, the EU for the first time said it was urging all non-essential diplomatic staff and families to leave Ukraine. The EU had previously labeled as premature the evacuations of other Western embassies, including the U.S. EU officials had said the departures were causing panic and undermining Ukraine’s economy and financial markets.

NATO has been moving swiftly in recent weeks to increase its force presence along the eastern flank, and on Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered an additional 3,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Infantry Brigade Combat Team to Poland, a senior Pentagon official told POLITICO. That will bring the total number of U.S. troops sent to Poland and Germany to 5,000.

Additionally, 1,000 soldiers based in Germany were sent to Romania last week. The U.S. also sent four U.K.-based F-15 fighters to Poland.

The U.K. has said it is sending additional troops to Poland and France is sending soldiers to Romania as part of NATO’s beefed-up response to the huge Russian military mobilization.

On Thursday, during a news conference with U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov derided the West for fretting about Russian soldiers deployed on Russian territory and he complained bitterly about the NATO forces in Eastern Europe. “The deployment of Russian troops on our own territory causes incomprehensible anxiety and very strong emotions among our British colleagues and other Western representatives,” Lavrov said, conveniently ignoring the Russian troops in Belarus. “Unlike the hundreds and thousands of British troops stationed in the Baltics,” Lavrov said.

No progress in talks

The heightened alarm came a day after another round of talks between representatives of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia — in the so-called Normandy format — once again yielded no progress in implementing the Minsk peace accords, which are intended to end the existing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

After the meeting, which was held in Berlin, officials said Russia had insisted that Kyiv negotiate with separatist authorities in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, and that the Ukrainian government had flatly refused, declaring such negotiations to be a red line it would not cross. Still, officials said they had agreed to continue talking.

Putin, following a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Kremlin on Monday night, had personally demanded that the Ukrainian government talk directly with the separatists.

“It won’t work otherwise,” Putin said. “They do not want to talk directly with representatives of Donbass. It is written directly in Point 12, in Point 9, Point 11 that such and such issues will be discussed and agreed upon with representatives of these territories,” Putin said. “Discuss and agree with them. How else can you work then? Impossible.”

Russia has insisted that it has no intention of invading, and does not want war, but it has issued a series of demands for security guarantees from the West, and Putin has warned previously of “military-technical” responses if those demands are not met to his satisfaction.

At the meeting with Macron, he reiterated Russia’s three core demands: a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO; assurances that no strike missiles will be deployed near Russia’s borders; and a pullback of NATO forces to positions they were in prior to 1997.

Western officials have rebuffed the demands regarding NATO membership and the pullback of forces as “non-starters” but have expressed willingness to negotiate on other points if Russia pulls back the more than 100,000 troops, tanks and other heavy weapons that it has deployed all along Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus. Moscow has also said that some of the forces in Belarus are participating in temporary exercises.

In Kyiv on Friday night, there were no signs of panic, though U.S. citizens reported receiving telephone calls from diplomatic personnel urging them to quickly leave the country.

Earlier in the day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met with Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, but there was no immediate comment from Zelenskiy after the new U.S. warnings. Previously, Zelenskiy had sought to play down some of the alarmist comments, seeking to avert panic among citizens and in the financial markets.

In the already war-torn region of Donbass, ceasefire violations skyrocketed in Donetsk, according to the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission, to 738 in the previous 24 hours period, from 27 violations the day before. The 738 violations included 156 explosions. But in Luhansk, the number of ceasefire violations dropped to just 11, all explosions, compared to 224 violations the day before. In general, ceasefire violations have declined sharply in 2022, after rising precipitously late last year.

But in a potentially worrisome development, the Kyiv Post, a local newspaper, reported that the U.S. was also pulling out its citizens working on the Special Monitoring Mission. Diplomats warned that a collapse of the monitoring effort could quickly lead to an outbreak of severe violence.

The U.S. for weeks has been warning of a potential Russian invasion, but officials had said that they believe all necessary forces for a widescale incursion and occupation were not yet in place. That assessment appeared to change on Friday.

“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 said. “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.”

Sullivan’s briefing at the White House followed a videoconference between Biden, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg; German Chancellor Olaf Scholz; French President Emmanuel Macron; U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson; Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Polish President Andrzej Duda; Romanian President Klaus Iohannis; European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen; and European Council President Charles Michel.

A White House readout of the call said the leaders had reiterated both their “desire for a diplomatic solution” and to impose heavy sanctions on Russia in the event of an attack.

 “The leaders agreed on the importance of coordinated efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including their readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia should it choose military escalation, and to continue reinforcing the defensive posture on NATO’s eastern flank,” the White House statement said.

Stoltenberg, the NATO chief, said that full-scale invasion was just one scenario of potential Russian attacks.

“We continue to reach out to Russia and call on them to deescalate and to engage in good faith in political dialogue,” he said during a visit to the Mihail Kogălniceanu Military Base in Romania on Friday with Iohannis.

“There is a risk for a full-fledged invasion but there’s also a risk for other types of aggressive actions, including attempts to topple the government in Kyiv, hybrid cyberattacks and many other types of Russian aggression,” Stoltenberg said. “There is no certainty but what we know is the military buildup continues.”

Erin Banco, Cristina Gallardo, Paul McLeary, Nahal Toosi, Lili Bayer, Quint Forgey, Jakob Hanke Vela, Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.

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