National security adviser Jake Sullivan issued a stark warning Sunday that the United States believes Russia could launch an invasion of Ukraine this week, but is still holding out hope diplomacy can prevail.
Sullivan told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” that Russian forces are positioned so that an invasion could take place before the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which end on February 20.
“We cannot perfectly predict the day, but we have now been saying for some time that we are in the window, and an invasion could begin, a major military action could begin by Russia in Ukraine any day now – that includes this coming week, before the end of the Olympics,” Sullivan told Tapper.
He added, “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. And we are prepared to continue to work on diplomacy, but we are also prepared to respond in a united and decisive way with our allies and partners should Russia proceed.”
Sullivan was speaking a day after President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin of “swift and severe costs” if he were to order an invasion of Ukraine.
Sullivan will hold a series of briefings with lawmakers on Russia and Ukraine on Monday, a White House official confirmed.
The US has estimated that Russia has more than 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border, with thousands added just this week, according to an administration official. The US on Saturday moved some of its forces out of Ukraine and ordered the evacuation of most of its embassy staff from the country. Sullivan said the US Embassy in Ukraine is “ready to complete the drawdown … should that become necessary.”
The US’ concern over the situation in Ukraine was further underscored Sunday when US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield scrapped plans to lead a delegation to Liberia this week to instead focus on the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, according to a source familiar with the decision.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Sunday the intelligence the Defense Department has that suggests Russia could invade Ukraine at any moment “really was a combination of factors,” including what the US is seeing in plain sight on the border.
“I think a mosaic of the intelligence that we’re seeing, not speaking to it specifically, but we have good sources of intelligence and they’re telling us that things are sort of building now to some kind of crescendo opportunity for Mr. Putin,” he told Fox.
Regarding the exit of some American forces and diplomatic staff from Ukraine, Kirby told MSNBC that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “out of an abundance of caution … decided it was time to move them out of the country,” adding the troops were already stationed close to the Polish border so it was “fairly easy to get them out of the country.”
Sullivan on Friday had warned Americans in Ukraine to leave and said that military action could begin with an aerial bombardment that could kill civilians.
He reiterated those calls to Tapper on Sunday, saying that a military attack would likely begin with missile and bomb attacks.
“Those are never as precise as the army – any army – would like them to be. We don’t even know how precise the Russian army would like them to be,” Sullivan said. “Innocent civilians could be killed regardless of their nationality. It would then be followed by an onslaught of a ground force moving across the Ukrainian frontier. Again, where innocent civilians could get caught in the cross fire or trapped in places they could not move from. So that is why we are being so clear and direct to American citizens that while commercial transport options are still available, they should take advantage of them.”
The national security adviser declined to weigh in on whether he thinks it’s become more likely that Putin will order troops massing at the border to invade neighboring Ukraine, instead pointing to “an acceleration of that buildup.”
“I’m not going to handicap what will happen – I cannot sit here today and predict,” Sullivan said. “What I can do is make sure we are prepared – and we are prepared. We are prepared to respond immediately and decisively, flanked by our allies and partners, if Russia moves forward. We will defend NATO territory, we will impose costs on Russia and we will ensure that we emerge from this as the West stronger, more determined, more purposeful than we have been in 30 years, and that Russia ultimately suffers a significant strategic cost for military action.”
If Russia does invade Ukraine, Sullivan said, US intelligence points to the possibility of a false flag operation as pretext for invasion.
“We have information that we have gathered through intelligence that indicates that there is active planning for this, and it’s not just the United States saying it,” Sullivan told Tapper. “We have our NATO allies stepping out and saying it as well, because they’ve been able to review that intelligence, assess its credibility and reach the same conclusion we have reached. So, I do think the world should be prepared for Russia staging a pretext and then watching a potential military action.”
After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that the “best friend” for Ukraine’s enemies is instilling panic in the country, Sullivan defended the administration’s decision to sound the alarm on any potential false flag operation. The US has been releasing intelligence “to stop a war,” Sullivan said, not start one. Biden and Zelensky spoke Sunday morning for about an hour, a White House official said.
“Our view is that we’re not going to give Russia the opportunity to conduct a surprise here – to spring something on Ukraine or the world. We are going to make sure that we are laying out for the world what we see as transparently and plainly as we possibly can and share that information as widely as we can,” Sullivan said. “That’s what we’ve done. That’s what we’ll continue to do.”
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Allison Malloy, Arlette Saenz and Sam Fossum contributed to this report.