Joe Biden said he was convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a decision to invade Ukraine, issuing his strongest warning yet amid mounting signs Moscow was creating a pretext for military action.
Speaking at the White House after a call with transatlantic leaders over what the US president described as a “rapidly escalating crisis”, he accused Moscow of creating a pretext for an assault on its neighbor that he said could begin in the coming week , in the coming days ”.
Asked by a reporter if he believed Putin had already decided to launch an attack, Biden responded: “As of this moment, I’m convinced he made the decision. We have reason to believe that. ” It was the first time the US has said it thinks the Russian president has made his mind up.
“We believe that they will target Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, a city of 2.8m innocent people,” Biden added.
Even so, he said it was not “too late” for Putin to “de-escalate and return to the negotiating table”.
Biden cited plans by Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, to meet on February 24 in Europe as a possible opportunity for further talks, but warned if Moscow took military action before then it will have “ slammed the door shut on diplomacy ”.
He added that if Putin chose war, he would “pay a steep price for doing so, not only from the sanctions that we and our allies will impose on Russia, but the moral outrage the rest of the world will visit upon them”.
After Biden’s remarks, a White House official said his statement about Putin’s decision reflected “the assessments of the intelligence community”.
Biden’s comments followed a day during which western fears of an impending Russian attack on Ukraine grew sharply as tensions rose in the eastern region of the country that is partially controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
The president pointed to an increase in ceasefire violations by Russian-backed fighters, the shelling of a kindergarten in the region that Moscow sought to falsely blame on Ukrainian forces, and “more and more disinformation” about the conflict being “pushed” to the Russian public, including “phoney allegations” of genocide carried out by Ukraine.
“All these are consistent with the playbook the Russians have used before to set up a false justification to act against Ukraine,” Biden said. “This is also aligned with pretext scenarios that United States and our allies and partners have been warning about for weeks.”
He ridiculed Russia for claiming Ukraine was preparing a “massive offensive” in the Donbas region, adding: “It defies basic logic to believe that Ukrainians would choose this moment – with well over 150,000 troops on its borders – to escalate [the] conflict. ”
A few minutes before Biden started speaking, Russian news wires reported multiple explosions in Luhansk, the second big city held by separatists, and posted footage of what they said was a fire at a large pipeline.
Earlier in the day, Moscow-backed separatists ordered an evacuation of civilians to Russia, claiming Ukrainian forces were preparing to attack the region. Biden did not refer to either episode but praised Ukrainian forces for showing “restraint” and not allowing Russia to “bait” them into war.
The president spoke as several of his top officials, including Blinken and Kamala Harris, vice-president, were in Europe to attend the Munich security conference, where the Ukraine crisis was at the top of the agenda as the biggest threat to the continent’s security since the end of the Cold War.
On Saturday, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, is also expected to attend the conference and call for western unity in response to the looming Russian aggression.
“Allies need to speak with one voice to stress to President Putin the high price he will pay for any further Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Johnson said ahead of his attendance.
Biden equally sought to reinforce that message. “There are many issues that divide our nation and our world. But standing up to Russian aggression is not one of them. The American people are united, Europe is united. ”
At a White House briefing earlier on Friday afternoon, Anne Neuberger, Biden’s top adviser on cyber security, blamed Russia for cyber attacks that hit some Ukrainian banks and government operations this week.
Daleep Singh, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, warned Moscow that European countries and the US were aligned on massive economic sanctions to be imposed on Russia if it followed through with an invasion. However, cutting the country’s banks off from the Swift international payments system would not be in the “initial” tranche of measures, he added.
“Russia would face the prospect of intense capital outflows mounting pressure on its currency, surging inflation, higher borrowing costs, economic contraction, and the erosion of its productive capacity,” Singh said.