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White House says a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen within days

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today at the White House, the president's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, warned that the Russian military could invade Ukraine within days. Sullivan said the U.S. does not believe Russian authorities have made a final decision, nor does it know the scope of a potential invasion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: It could be more limited. It could be more expansive. But 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.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. military is now sending an additional 3,000 troops to nearby Poland to help Americans who may flee Ukraine in the event of an invasion. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman are here with the latest. Hello.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Franco, you were at the White House today for this briefing. Tell us more about what Sullivan said.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he came into the briefing right after President Biden wrapped up a long call with allies in Europe, and Sullivan spoke in the most starkest language I've heard yet. He said Russia has the forces ready to act now. And he said they very well could enter Ukraine before the end of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

You know, there had been a lot of speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin would wait until after the games so as not to anger China. And that's because the West has threatened major sanctions, so Russia would need China to buy its oil, for example, if it's cut off from other markets. Now, Sullivan emphasized that he didn't know exactly what was going to happen, and he also didn't know if Putin had made a final decision, but he strongly urged Americans in Ukraine to leave as soon as possible.

SHAPIRO: So that's the word from the White House. Tom, what are you hearing from the Pentagon?

BOWMAN: Well, Ari, there's much more worry at the Pentagon. Officials tell me it's now not if but when Russia will invade. Russia, I'm told, still needs some logistics for its forces around Ukraine but could still move in at any time, and the fear is a massive invasion from three sides. That's kind of the general feeling now.

But still, as Jake Sullivan laid out, there's a possibility of something more limited - taking over the eastern region of the country, the Donbas, where there's a Russian-supported rebel force now. So again, great worry but still uncertain exactly when this could happen.

SHAPIRO: But Tom, I want to underline that because it seems significant that Pentagon leaders are telling you it's not if but when Russia will invade Ukraine. Franco, President Biden has already warned American citizens who are in that country to get out. What did Sullivan say about this?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. On that point, he urged Americans to leave Ukraine in the next 24 to 48 hours. The White House has never given such short and specific notice. And Sullivan warned that those who stay are risking their lives.

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

ORDOÑEZ: He went on to say that the president will not be putting the lives of American soldiers at risk by sending them into a war zone to rescue people who could leave now. He added that the United States is also reducing the size of its embassy footprint in Kyiv.

SHAPIRO: Several countries are doing that. Tom, what are we to make of that reduction in embassy staff by the U.S. and European allies?

BOWMAN: Well, Ari, it's another clear indication something could happen. And, you know, look at Afghanistan, when they reduced the embassy there just before the Taliban took over the whole country. Also, another question is will they remove the few hundred Florida National Guard trainers in Ukraine? If so, that's another indication they expect something to happen. And again, sending another 3,000 or more troops and the 82nd Airborne Division to Poland to assist Americans who would possibly flee Ukraine, that gives you a sense the U.S. expects something big soon.

SHAPIRO: So while Russian plans may not yet be known, adviser Sullivan said an invasion could begin with missile and air strikes. What's your reaction to that, Tom?

BOWMAN: Well, that's how massive conventional wars always begin. Look at the Iraq War. U.S. began with missile and air attacks before ground troops went in. Also, in this case, you'll likely see massive cyber strikes by Russia to cut off Ukrainian communications. You'd likely see that before those missile and airstrikes, so that's another indicator. If that happens, there's a clear indication, a likely - a likelihood that they will invade.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about what the response to such an invasion would be. Franco, the U.S. has threatened huge sanctions against Russia if there were a military invasion, but there have been questions about how closely European allies might follow suit. What did Sullivan say about that today?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, as he has said before, Sullivan says Russia would face the most comprehensive and painful sanctions it has ever experienced should they invade. And he said European leaders would have, quote, "similar package" to the kinds of banking sanctions and export controls that the U.S. is working on.

But he did say leaders continue to push for diplomatic talks. And he said that Biden officials did tell me, actually, today that Biden plans to talk with Putin on Saturday.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you both for the update.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.