US warns of ‘distinct possibility’ Russia will invade Ukraine within days

<span>Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA</span>
Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA
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The US has warned of the “very distinct possibility” of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in the next few days, potentially involving an overwhelming attack on Kyiv, and told all remaining Americans to leave the country in the next 48 hours.

Joe Biden is due to speak to Vladimir Putin by phone on Saturday. Diplomatic sources said that Biden had told allied leaders in a call that Vladimir Putin had taken a decision to go ahead with an invasion, but Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said: “We have not seen anything come to us that says a final decision has been taken, [that] the go order has been given.”

“I will say that the way that he has built up his forces and put them in place, along with the other indicators that we have collected through intelligence, makes it clear to us that there is a very distinct possibility that Russia will choose to act militarily, and there is reason to believe that that could happen on a reasonably swift timeframe,” Sullivan said.

“Now, we can’t pinpoint the day at this point, and we can’t pinpoint the hour but what we can say is that there is a credible prospect that a Russian military action would take place, even before the end of the Olympics.” The Winter Olympics in China close on 20 February.

Biden has told other Nato and EU leaders that the US believes Putin has decided to carry out an invasion of Ukraine, which could happen in the next few days, according to diplomatic sources.

Biden’s call to allies followed a situation room meeting at the White House to discuss the latest intelligence on the Russian military buildup, and on Putin’s thinking.

“Practical things will start to happen on the ground as a result of this decision, but that doesn’t mean that Putin couldn’t still row back,” a European diplomat said, insisting it was not too late to deter the Russian leader. “There are further decision points along the line.”

Sullivan said US citizens still in Ukraine should leave in the next two days.

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

“If a Russian attack on Ukraine proceeds, it is likely to begin with aerial bombing and missile attacks that could obviously kill civilians without regard to their nationality. A subsequent ground invasion would involve the onslaught of a massive force with virtually no notice. Communications to arrange a departure could be severed and commercial transit halted.”

Late on Friday the Russian foreign ministry accused western countries of spreading false information with help from the media, in order to distract attention from their own aggressive actions.

The White House said Biden was calling transatlantic leaders “to discuss our shared concerns about Russia’s continued buildup of military forces around Ukraine, and continued coordination on both diplomacy and deterrence”.

A European diplomat said that the US had asked for the urgent call with Nato allies and the heads of the EU council and commission, to share the new intelligence.

Western intelligence agencies believe that the most likely goal of a Russian offensive would be to surround Kyiv and force regime change.

They also believe that the signal for such an invasion would be a false-flag attack, possibly including allegations of Ukrainian use of chemical weapons, that would be used as a pretext for Russian intervention.

Within minutes of Biden’s call, the UK Foreign Office urged British citizens in Ukraine “to leave now via commercial means while they remain available”.

The Russian embassy in Kyiv said it was considering telling non-essential staff to leave, according to Tass news agency. Other embassies stepped up evacuations on Friday.

According to Walla News, Israel ordered family members of diplomatic staff out of the country, and the Kyiv Post reported that the US had called for American members of the Ukraine monitoring mission run by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to leave the country by Tuesday.

Vice-Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes, the head of the Norwegian intelligence service, said Russia now had 150,000 troops massed around Ukraine, and said the decision on whether to attack rested with Vladimir Putin.

“Now it is first and foremost up to President Putin if he chooses to do so,” Stensønes said. “It is difficult to say whether it is probable or not probable, because it is solely up to the Russian president to make that decision.”

He added that Russians “have all they need to carry everything out, from a minor invasion in the east to minor attacks here and there in Ukraine, or a complete invasion, with, possibly, an occupation of all or parts of Ukraine”.

Western intelligence agencies largely agree that Putin has now put in place enough troops to attempt an invasion, a sentiment reflected in warnings in the last 24 hours from Biden and the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson.

A number of invasion scenarios are considered possible, but there is a prevailing belief that any military intervention ordered by Putin would be designed to achieve regime change in Kyiv. That could see a lightning attack, aimed at encircling Kyiv, with the intention of forcing the collapse of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government, and trying to install a pro-Russian regime without urban warfare.

Related: ‘Things could go crazy quickly,’ Biden warns on Ukraine as talks in Berlin fail

Johnson emphasised on Thursday that any invasion would amount to a massive miscalculation by Putin because Ukraine would “fight and they will resist very strongly”. Any belief in the Kremlin that a Russian intervention would be welcome by anything other than a tiny minority is mistaken, British ministers stress.

The raised alert follows the failure of several diplomatic initiatives to lead to a breakthrough. Reports suggested that much of Emmanuel Macron’s more than five hours of talks with Putin in Moscow on Monday, was taken up by lengthy historical lectures from the Russian leader, with very little substance on current events.

Accounts from German officials on “Normandy format” talks in Berlin between Russian, Ukrainian, German and French officials had been difficult and offered no prospects of defusing tensions.

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is due to visit Moscow to see Putin on Tuesday, but his spokesman said he was taking no new diplomatic initiatives with him.

The head of the foreign affairs committee in the Bundestag, Michael Roth, a former minister, said on Twitter: “Russia has effectively annexed Belarus militarily. What are being called “exercises” is really the encirclement of Ukraine, and a concrete threat to Poland and the Baltic States. The situation remains dangerous.”

After a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, the British defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said he had been assured that Russia had no intention of invading Ukraine and that he had made clear to Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, that any invasion would have would have tragic consequences.

Wallace that Russia’s deployment of forces gave it a range of options including an invasion, and added “it was vital not to allow room for a miscommunication or miscalculation”.

During a visit to Australia, Blinken warned that the repercussions from a Russian invasion would spill into Asia, where the US and its allies are increasingly in confrontation with China.

“If we allow those principles to be challenged with impunity, even if it’s half the world away in Europe, that will have an impact here as well – others are watching,” Blinken told reporters in Melbourne.

“Others are looking to all of us to see how we respond. So that’s why it’s so important that we have this solidarity: that we do everything possible, through diplomacy, to try to avert a conflict and prevent aggression – but equally, to be resolute if Russia renews its aggression.”

US officials said on Friday that the Pentagon would send another 3,000 combat troops to Poland to join 1,700 who already are assembling there.