WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s top national security aide warned again Sunday that the Russian military has the capacity to invade Ukraine “this week” under the pretext of a “false flag” operation portraying Ukrainians as the aggressors.
“The way they have built up their forces, the way they have maneuvered things in place, makes it a distinct possibility there will be major military action very soon,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union .”
Sullivan did not offer any specifics of a potential Russian operation, though he stressed that the US has shared its intelligence with NATO allies and Ukraine. He cautioned that a Russian invasion would lead to severe human suffering on both sides and a high civilian toll.
A Russian invasion would “begin with a significant barrage of missiles and bomb attacks” followed by “an onslaught of a ground force moving across the Ukrainian frontier. Again, where innocent civilians could get caught in the crossfire or get trapped in places they could not move from,” Sullivan said.
US: Sharing intelligence ‘to stop a war’
The US and NATO allies have in recent weeks publicized a series of intelligence reports detailing Russia’s expected strategies to vandalize Ukrainian cyber systems and critical infrastructure, spread disinformation in the country and marshal troops for an invasion.
The strategy has come under some criticism from Ukraine’s leaders for its potential to stir panic, though Biden administration officials have stood by the strategy.
“We’re not putting forward this intelligence to start a war, which has happened in the past. We are putting forward this intelligence to stop a war,” Sullivan said.
Biden warned Putin on Saturday that an invasion of Ukraine would result in “swift and severe costs for Russia” during a high-stakes hourlong phone call that failed to ease rising tensions.
A senior Biden administration official described the call as “professional” but said the dialogue resulted in “no fundamental change in the dynamics that have been unfolding now for several weeks.”
Biden told Putin that “if Russia undertakes a further invasion of Ukraine, the United States together with our Allies and partners will respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs on Russia,” according to the White House.
Airlines avoid Ukraine
Some airlines have canceled or diverted flights to Ukraine amid heightened fears that an invasion by Russia is imminent, despite intensive weekend talks between the Kremlin and the West.
Russia denies it intends to invade but has massed well over 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and has sent troops to exercises in neighboring Belarus. US officials say Russia’s buildup of firepower has reached the point where it could invade on short notice.
Dutch airline KLM has canceled flights to Ukraine until further notice, the company said Saturday.
Dutch sensitivity to potential danger in Ukrainian airspace is high in the wake of the 2014 shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over an area of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed rebels. All 298 people on board died, including 198 Dutch citizens.
The Ukrainian charter airline SkyUp said Sunday its flight from Madeira, Portugal, to Kyiv was diverted to the Moldovan capital Chisinau after the plane’s Irish lessor said it was banning flights in Ukrainian airspace.
Ukrainian presidential spokesman Serhii Nykyforov told The Associated Press that Ukraine has not closed its airspace. A statement from the Infrastructure Ministry said: “Some carriers are experiencing difficulties associated with fluctuations in the insurance markets.”
Diplomacy ongoing, but West tells citizens to leave Ukraine
The Putin-Biden call, after a call between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron earlier in the day, came at a critical moment for what has become the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. US officials believe they have mere days to prevent an invasion and enormous bloodshed in Ukraine.
While the US and its NATO allies have no plans to send troops to Ukraine to fight Russia, an invasion and resulting punishing sanctions could reverberate far beyond the former Soviet republic, affecting energy supplies, global markets and the power balance in Europe.
Biden was clear with Putin that “while the United States remains prepared to engage in diplomacy, in full coordination with our Allies and partners, we are equally prepared for other scenarios,” the White House statement said.
Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s top foreign policy aide, said that while tensions have been escalating for months, in recent days “the situation has simply been brought to the point of absurdity.”
He said Biden mentioned the possible sanctions that could be imposed on Russia, but “this issue was not the focus during a fairly long conversation with the Russian leader.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is flying to Ukraine and Russia this week in an effort to help defuse escalating tensions. Germany is among the nations that have called on its citizens to leave Ukraine as quickly as possible, including the US and Britain.
Ahead of his first visits as chancellor to Kyiv on Monday and Moscow on Tuesday for meetings with the Ukrainian and Russian presidents, Scholz renewed his warning to Russia, as well as his advocacy of continuing diplomacy in multiple formats.
“It is our job to ensure that we prevent a war in Europe, in that we send a clear message to Russia that any military aggression would have consequences that would be very high for Russia and its prospects, and that we are united with our allies ,” Scholz told the German parliament’s upper house on Friday.
The US State Department late Friday directed most staff at its embassy in Kyiv to evacuate as the White House warned a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent.
The embassy is suspending consular services but will still provide some emergency services with a small team remaining. The embassy will operate at a “bare minimum” to maintain “core functions,” according to a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The move comes as Washington has ratcheted up warnings for Americans to leave the country. If a conflict materializes, Americans in Ukraine should not expect the US military to rescue them, the official said Saturday morning, adding: “It isn’t just time to leave Ukraine. It is past time for private citizens to leave Ukraine.”
Canada has shuttered its embassy in Kyiv and relocated its diplomatic staff to a temporary office in Lviv, located in the western part of the country, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said Saturday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has downplayed concerns about an invasion, urging the country to remain calm.
“I believe that today in the information space there is a lot of information,” he said Saturday.
Intelligence suggests invasion this week
The timing of any possible Russian military action remains a key question.
The US picked up intelligence that Russia is looking at Wednesday as a target date, according to a US official familiar with the findings. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and did so only on condition of anonymity, would not say how definitive the intelligence was.
Further US-Russia tensions arose on Saturday when the Defense Ministry summoned the US Embassy’s military attaché after it said the navy detected an American submarine in Russian waters near the Kuril Islands in the Pacific. The submarine orders declined to leave, but departed after the navy used unspecified “appropriate means,” the ministry said.
Adding to the sense of crisis, the Pentagon ordered an additional 3,000 US troops to Poland to reassure allies.
In addition to the more than 100,000 ground troops that US officials say Russia has assembled along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, the Russians have deployed missile, air, naval and special operations forces, as well as supplies to sustain a war. This week, Russia moved six amphibious assault ships into the Black Sea, augmenting its capability to land marines on the coast.
Biden has bolstered the US military presence in Europe as reassurance to allies on NATO’s eastern flank. The 3,000 additional soldiers ordered to Poland come on top of 1,700 who are on their way there. The US Army also is shifting 1,000 soldiers from Germany to Romania, which like Poland shares a border with Ukraine.
Russia is demanding that the West keep former Soviet countries out of NATO. It also wants NATO to refrain from deploying weapons near its border and to roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West.
Contributing: The Associated Press; Joey Garrison, USA TODAY
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism