U.S. President Joe Biden says Russian President Vladimir Putin has made up his mind to invade Ukraine.
“I’m convinced he’s made the decision. We have reason to believe that,” Biden said during remarks from the White House on Friday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, the Russian military announced that Saturday it will hold massive drills of its strategic nuclear forces, which Putin will personally oversee. However, Biden said he doesn’t believe Putin is seriously contemplating the use of nuclear weapons.
Biden called out the shelling of a kindergarten by Russian-backed fighters in the Donbas region, which Moscow said was carried out by Ukraine. He pointed out other disinformation he said Moscow was peddling to the public, including claims of a genocide in Donbas and a Ukrainian attack on Russia.
“All these are consistent with the playbook the Russians have used before to set up a false justification to act against Ukraine,” Biden said. For weeks his administration has warned of such pretext scenarios and “false flag operations.”
Should Moscow invade Ukraine, it will be critical for the United States to convince the world that Russia is the aggressor and that it did so unprovoked, Max Bergmann, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told VOA.
“This was a master class from the Biden administration in how to win an information war with Russia,” Bergmann said. “The Biden administration has read the Kremlin playbook and they are exposing Russian disinformation as they come across it.’
However, Biden is still offering Putin a de-escalation off-ramp, saying that diplomacy is “always a possibility.” He said, based on the “significant intelligence capability” of the U.S., he has reason to believe Putin will still consider the diplomatic option.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet in person with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Feb. 24.
Meanwhile Washington and its allies are analyzing a document that the Kremlin delivered to U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan in Moscow. It is Russia’s written response to the recent U.S. and NATO offer to negotiate over their missile deployment and troop exercises in Europe while rejecting Russia’s demands related to possible Ukrainian membership in NATO.
During a White House briefing Friday, Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, said for the first time that the U.S. believes Moscow was responsible for recent so-called DDoS cyberattacks on Ukraine.
“We believe that the Russian government is responsible for widescale cyberattacks on Ukrainian banks this week,” Neuberger said. “We have technical information that links the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, as known GRU infrastructure was seen transmitting high volumes of communication to Ukraine-based IP addresses and domains.
“This recent spate of cyberattacks in Ukraine are consistent with what a Russian effort would look like and laying the groundwork for more disruptive cyberattacks accompanying a potential further invasion of Ukraine sovereign territory,” she added.
While noting there are no specific threats on the U.S. homeland at this point, Neuberger warned that administration officials are bracing for any Russian cyberattacks on American targets following the imposition of sanctions on Moscow.
The U.S. is “taking the necessary actions to prepare and harden potential U.S. targets against what might come next,” said Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow who studies disinformation and cybersecurity at the Wilson Center. She spoke to VOA.
Talks with European allies
Biden delivered his remarks after his latest round of urgent talks with European leaders and a call with a bipartisan group of members of Congress who are representing the United States, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, at the Munich Security Conference on the Ukraine crisis.
“Despite Russia’s efforts to divide us at home and abroad, I can affirm that has not happened,” Biden said. “The overwhelming message on both calls was one of determination and resolve.”
However, there are differences among allies on the timing and severity of sanctions against Moscow. For example, the initial package will likely not include banning Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system used by 200 countries to handle international financial transfers.
“We have other severe measures we can take that our allies and partners are ready to take in lockstep with us, and that don’t have the same spillover effects,” said Daleep Singh, the deputy national security adviser for international economics, who spoke to reporters during the same White House briefing Friday. “But we always will monitor these options and we’ll revise our judgments as time goes on.”
Singh said U.S. measures are not designed to reduce Russia’s ability to supply energy to the world but that it would be “a strategic mistake” for Putin to retaliate against Western sanctions by cutting back energy supplies to Europe.
“Two-thirds of Russia’s exports and half of its budget revenues come from oil and gas, and if Putin were to weaponize his energy supply, it will only accelerate the diversification of the world away from Russian energy consumption,” he said.
Singh added Moscow would be unable to replace technology imports from other countries, including China, if Washington also imposes tough export controls that it has threatened.
Call for de-escalation
Meanwhile U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called for a de-escalation of the Ukraine crisis in a telephone conversation Friday with his Russian counterpart, according to the Pentagon.
‘Austin called for de-escalation, the return of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine to their home bases, and a diplomatic resolution,’ Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement.
Putin said Friday the situation in eastern Ukraine was getting worse a day after Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels traded accusations of firing across a cease-fire line.
“Right now, we are seeing deterioration of the situation” in eastern Ukraine, Putin said at a Moscow news conference with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, after discussing their joint military drills in Belarus near Ukraine.
Also Friday the leaders of Russian-backed separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine announced the evacuation of civilians to Russia to “avoid civilian casualties.”
Putin has ordered his emergencies minister to travel to the region to help plan for the arrival of the evacuees.