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The U.S. orders embassy staff in Ukraine to leave over fears of a Russian attack

  • By Brian Naylor and Steve Inskeep/NPR
A photograph shows the US Embassy building in Kyiv, on January 24, 2022 - Ukraine on January 24 said it was

A photograph shows the US Embassy building in Kyiv, on January 24, 2022 - Ukraine on January 24 said it was "premature" of the United States to evacuate the families of its diplomatic staff in Kyiv due to fears of a looming Russian invasion. (Photo by Sergei Supinsky / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

(Washington) — White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that a Russian military invasion of Ukraine could begin at any time and urged Americans in Ukraine to leave now.

The U.S. State Department has ordered almost all of the embassy staff in Kyiv to depart. Consular services will also be suspended on Sunday, according to an advisory. In January, the department had ordered family members of embassy staff to leave Ukraine.

“We are not saying that a decision has been taken,” Sullivan said, declining to get into intelligence details beyond that new Russian forces are arriving at the Ukrainian border. He spoke to reporters on Friday after President Biden spoke with trans-Atlantic leaders about the situation and potential response.

“I do want to be clear: It could begin during the Olympics despite a lot of speculation that it would only happen after the Olympics,” Sullivan said.

Biden is expected to speak by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday morning.

A senior U.S. military official late Friday added insight to the warnings for Americans to leave Ukraine.

The official said that as of Friday evening “We do not have evidence that Putin has made a decision.” However, the U.S. has been monitoring Russian troop deployments and the official said something was detected in recent days that sharply heightened concern that an attack is coming.

The latest information might not be a smoking gun so much as an accumulation of information over time.

Russian troops have yet to move toward Ukraine’s borders and Russia has insisted they are only performing exercises. However, the official said the troops are positioned in such a way as to strike toward Kyiv and along several other routes where they would massively outnumber Ukrainian defenders.

The official nonetheless asserted that Putin is very close to making a historic mistake, that it would be far easier to invade Ukraine than to leave the country.

Sullivan would not predict when a Russian military attack might occur

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan gives an update about Ukraine during a press briefing at the White House on Friday.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to reduce the size of its embassy footprint in Kyiv, Sullivan said.

“Any Americans in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible, and in any event, in the next 24 to 48 hours,” he said, noting a Russian invasion would likely begin with aerial bombings and missile attacks followed by an onslaught of a massive ground force, which could cut off air, rail and road routes.

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

Sullivan said he could not predict how limited or expansive a Russian military invasion of Ukraine would be. “There are very real possibilities that it will involve the seizure of a significant amount of territory in Ukraine and the seizure of major cities, including the capital city,” he said.

Sullivan would not predict when a Russian military attack might occur.

“We can’t pinpoint the day at this point, and we can’t pinpoint the hour,” he said. “But what we can say is that there’s a credible prospect that a Russian military action would take place even before the end of the Olympics.” The games in Beijing are slated to conclude Sunday, Feb. 20.

Asked about past U.S. intelligence estimates that were proved wrong, including in the runup to the Iraq War, when Bush administration officials claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, Sullivan said things are different this time.

“In the situation in Iraq, intelligence was used and deployed from this very podium to start a war. We are trying to stop a war, to prevent a war, to avert a war,” he said.

Meanwhile, a defense official confirmed with NPR that the Defense Department will send an additional 3,000 U.S. troops to Poland in the coming days. This is in addition to some 3,000 U.S. troops the administration is dispatching to Poland and Romania and some 8,500 already on high alert to be deployed to Europe if needed. U.S. forces in Poland are expected to help those Americans who have left Ukraine in anticipation of an invasion, and they would not play any kind of combat role in Ukraine.

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