Biden says he’s now convinced Putin decided to invade Ukraine, but leaves door open for diplomacy

“From this point on, I’m confident he made the decision,” Biden said during a speech at the White House.

The president also said the United States believed Russian forces intended to attack Ukraine “in the coming week” or sooner, and that an attack would target the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday that Russia was “putting itself in the right positions to carry out an attack,” echoing Biden’s assertion that Putin had decided to invade.

“They’re unfolding and now ready to strike,” Austin said, speaking from Vilnius, Lithuania. Austin said the United States would pursue a diplomatic solution “until the very last minute, until it is not possible.”

Biden plans to spend the weekend monitoring the ongoing Ukraine crisis from the White House as he meets with his national security team and stays in close contact with world leaders, multiple officials said. Biden had considered going to Delaware, as he usually does, but decided to stay in Washington.

Vice President Kamala Harris was in Munich, Germany, where she warned of the “swift, severe and united” consequences for Russia should an invasion occur.

Over the past few days, the Biden administration has publicly released several intelligence details about Russian moves — a marked change in the way U.S. national security officials typically operate. The administration’s decision to discuss their moves “out loud and repeatedly,” Biden said Friday in the Roosevelt Room, was made “to suppress any reason Russia might give to justify the invasion of Russia.” ‘Ukraine and prevent them from moving’.

“Make no mistake about it. If Russia goes ahead with its plans, it will be responsible for a catastrophic and unnecessary war of choice,” he added.

The president’s assertion on Friday that he is “convinced” that Putin has “made the decision” to invade Ukraine is a significant shift in his position. Biden has previously said he doesn’t believe the Russian leader has made up his mind, but acknowledged his insights into Putin’s thinking were limited. He noted that he hoped diplomacy could defuse the situation, saying Friday that “diplomacy is always a possibility.”

Asked why he thought Putin was considering diplomacy, Biden simply replied, “We have a significant intelligence capability.”

Biden said Friday that Russian disinformation provided a false justification for Putin to invade Ukraine, accusing Russia of ceasefire violations in the “rapidly worsening crisis”.

“Over the past few days, we have seen reports of a significant increase in ceasefire violations by Russian-backed fighters trying to provoke Ukraine in Donbass,” Biden said, pointing to multiple examples of misinformation that he says have been spread. by Russian state media, including a “false” allegation of genocide in the Donbass region.

surprise revelation

Biden had not originally planned to announce during his Friday speech that he believed Putin had made up his mind, and the revelation was not included in his prepared remarks. He only made his views known later when questioned by a reporter, initially answering only in the affirmative and refusing to expand.

He also made it clear that there is a diplomatic way to resolve the crisis, although US officials believe it is tightening as signs of an impending invasion mount.

The decision that Putin decided to invade Ukraine was made partly on the basis of the latest intelligence assessments showing that nearly half of the Russian forces massed on the borders moved into attack position, officials said. administrative officials and people familiar with the matter.

Defense officials said on Friday that the number of battalion battlegroups had increased to around 120-125 and Russian forces continued to move towards the border.

Biden’s view of Putin’s decision-making reflects those developments and the intelligence community’s broader assessments, an administration official said. The president cited “significant intelligence capability” for his view of Putin’s thinking, which he had previously called mysterious.

Russian response

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded to Biden’s comments, saying in her telegram: “The most monstrous thing is that there is not a word about the true situation of the people. civilian in the Donbass. No people, no problems?”

But the Russians’ claims simply don’t make sense, Biden argued earlier on Friday, saying, “It defies fundamental logic to believe that the Ukrainians would choose this moment – with over 150,000 troops laid out on its borders. – to escalate a year-long conflict.”

Reporting Zakharova’s comments, the Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti also said: “The US president repeated the unsubstantiated thesis about Russia’s alleged attempts to ‘attack’ Ukraine, threatening Moscow sanctions if escalated. The Russian Federation categorically denies such statements and escalation plans attributed to it. »

White House officials have warned that Russia could face heavy sanctions if it invades Ukraine, calling them “the toughest measures we have ever considered against Russia”.

Despite the United States’ assessment of an imminent invasion of Ukraine, Biden said it was up to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to decide whether he would attend this weekend’s security conference in Germany. . Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to meet with Zelensky at Saturday’s conference.

Earlier Friday, the White House blamed Russia for a massive cyber attack on Ukraine earlier in the week.

“We believe that the Russian government is responsible for the large-scale cyberattacks against Ukrainian banks this week. domains,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies.

Attribution of the attack was unusually fast for the US government, and Neuberger noted that Russia had previously benefited from American delays in attribution of Russian hacking operations.

“Russia likes to move in the shadows and relies on a long attribution process so that it can continue its malicious behavior against Ukraine in cyberspace, including prepositioning for its possible invasion,” Neuberger told reporters in the White House briefing room.

Biden’s speech on Friday comes amid escalating tensions in the region.

US officials say Russia has a list of senior Ukrainian officials it would remove if it invaded

Nearly half of the Russian forces surrounding Ukraine are in attack position, according to a defense official with knowledge of the latest assessment. The number of battalion battle groups has been reduced from about 120 to 125.

The official said that the Russian army has continued to move forces towards the border and in the past 48 hours the number of forces in attack position has reached 40% to 50%.

US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Michael Carpenter warned earlier on Friday that the US had assessed a major Russian military buildup near Ukraine in the past two weeks alone. .

“Russia probably massed between 169,000 and 190,000 people in and around Ukraine, compared to around 100,000 on January 30,” he said in a statement at the OSCE meeting. This includes Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders as well as Russian-led forces in eastern Ukraine, which have not been included in previous US assessments of Russia’s strength in the region.

Shortly before his remarks, Biden spoke with allies in North America and Europe. He will hold a phone call with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom, the European Union and NATO to discuss of the current crisis.

During the call, the leaders “expressed deep concern” about the situation and reiterated their support for Ukraine and discussed further economic aid to the country, according to a White House statement.

“They pledged to pursue diplomacy to de-escalate tensions while ensuring that they are prepared to impose swift and coordinated economic costs on Russia should it choose a new conflict. The leaders also discussed efforts to ensure the defense and security of NATO’s eastern flank,” the statement said. .

On Friday, the president also called a meeting the vice president was holding with members of Congress, all of whom are attending the Munich Security Conference in Germany and, according to one person in the room, he reiterated the work that the United States and its allies did. to try to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine. He also informed members of the situation at the borders of Ukraine.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a Russian response to Biden’s remarks.

CNN’s Oren Liebermann, Kaitlan Collins, Kate Sullivan, Darya Tarasova and Jonny Hallam contributed to this report.

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