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US warns full-scale invasion of Ukraine could be imminent

<i>ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Sputnik/Getty Images</i><br/>
Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Sputnik/Getty Images

By Katie Bo Lillis, Jim Sciutto, Jeremy Herb, Matthew Chance and Kylie Atwood, CNN

The US has issued a warning to the Ukrainian government that the latest intelligence points to Russia imminently launching a full-scale invasion, according to Ukrainian, US and western officials familiar with the matter.

The US intelligence assessment comes as foreign leaders and top US officials are warning about an imminent attack and say that Russian troops are moving into the pro-Moscow region of eastern Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with ABC News Wednesday evening tbihat while he couldn’t give specifics, “everything we’ve seen over the last 24 to 48 hours has Russia of putting the final touches on having its forces in place across all of Ukraine’s borders, to the north, to the east, to the south, to be ready for a full on invasion.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a media briefing in Australia, which occurred Tuesday evening eastern time, that “Russia is at peak readiness to now complete a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.” Morrison, whose country is a member of the Five Eyes alliance that shares intelligence, said it was “likely to occur within the next 24 hours.”

And on Wednesday morning, the Prime Minister of Latvia, a NATO member, told CNN that Russian troops have moved into the separatist region of Ukraine that Russia has now recognized as “independent.” Later on Wednesday, the Pentagon also said it believes Russian troops are moving into the region.

“We certainly believe that Russian, additional Russian military forces are moving into that region,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said at an on-camera briefing at the Pentagon. “We can’t confirm with any great specificity the numbers, and what the formations are, what the capabilities are, but we certainly believe that that’s happening.”

In an address posted to Facebook in the early hours Thursday Ukrainian time, President Volodymyr Zelensky said he tried to call Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday but was unsuccessful.

“Today I initiated a telephone conversation with the President of the Russian Federation. Silence. Although there should be silence in the Donbass,” Zelensky said.

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting Wednesday night at the request of Ukraine. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the meeting with a message for the Russian President.

“If indeed an operation is being prepared. I’ve only one thing to say from the bottom of my heart: President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine,” he said. “Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, said that US President Joe Biden told her to convey “that the United States, and our allies and partners, will continue to respond to Russia’s actions with unity, clarity, and conviction.”

“We are here tonight because we believe, along with Ukraine, that a full-scale, further invasion into Ukraine by Russia is imminent,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “This is a perilous moment. And we are here for one reason and one reason only: to ask Russia to stop. Return to your borders. … Back away from the brink, before it is too late.”

Amid the warnings Ukraine’s parliament on Wednesday approved the government’s declaration of a state of emergency, which would be imposed across the country starting at midnight Wednesday.

“According to the information at my disposal, Putin is moving additional forces and tanks into the occupied Donbas territories,” Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš told CNN’s Jim Sciutto. “By any definition that’s a crossing of a sovereign territory into a neighboring country.”

Pressed specifically on whether he was referring to the entry of additional Russian troops since Moscow recognized the two separatist regions earlier this week, Kariņš replied: “Yes, according to the information at my disposal, this is exactly what we’re seeing.”

The heads of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, the two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, asked Putin for help Wednesday repelling the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti.

Two other sources familiar with US intelligence confirmed to CNN that additional Russian troops have in fact crossed the border into the Donbas region since Putin recognized the two regions and issued an order deploying “peacekeepers” into the Donbas on Tuesday. According to a senior US official familiar with the latest intelligence, Russia has deployed one to two so-called battalion tactical groups, Russia’s main combat formation, each of which comprise an average of about 800 troops.

CNN has not independently verified the presence of additional Russian troops in the Donbas.

New intelligence warnings

The new warning from US intelligence was conveyed to Ukraine on Tuesday morning local Kyiv time, according to three of the sources. A senior Ukrainian official said Ukraine has not verified the intelligence and noted that the United States has issued similar warnings before, for assaults that ultimately did not materialize.

The US has assessed that Russia has completed all preparations for an invasion, a senior US defense official familiar with the latest intelligence. “They are as ready as they can be,” the official said.

NATO allies have been given a similar intelligence assessment warning of an imminent attack, according to a NATO military official. The official cautioned that “no one knows for sure” what Putin is going to do.

Newsweek first reported on the US warning.

Of particular concern, the US warned, is the major northeastern city of Kharkiv, according to the senior Ukrainian official and a western official familiar with the intelligence. The Ukrainian foreign minister said on Tuesday there were no plans to evacuate the city,

“We do not have such plans,” he said during a press conference in Washington alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken

The US believes Putin is “improvising” and “adapting” in response to the United States revealing information about his war plans, the White House alleged on Wednesday. Speaking during a daily briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Putin did not expect the level of transparency from the US about what it saw on the ground and how it expected Putin to proceed.

“Our assessment is that President Putin did not expect the United States to have the level of information that we have, did not expect us to put out this amount of information that we have put out, did not expect the global community to be as unified, including in the how unified the global community was in putting out the sanctions yesterday,” she said.

Psaki said the US was not predicting a “day, a moment or an hour” of a Russian attack but said the US still believes “Russian military forces are in an attack position” and “they are capable of operationalizing.”

Vice President Kamala Harris threatened further sanctions on Russia for the country’s aggressive actions ahead of a meeting with leaders from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators on Wednesday, calling the situation on the ground a “reinvasion.”

“If Russia goes further,” Harris said, “we will impose more costs that will be swift and severe.”

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would not only be “a war of choice,” but also “a war of carnage” that could kill thousands. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room,” Sherman said “thousands of lives could be lost” if Putin launches a full-scale assault on Ukraine.

Blinken pushed back on the notion that a Russian invasion into Ukraine would be a failure of US diplomacy during an interview with CBS Evening News.

“Diplomacy succeeded very effectively in bringing the world together the United States and Europe together in standing up to Russian aggression,” Blinken said.

Russian forces in ready positions, Pentagon says

A senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday that 80% of Russian forces amassed on Ukraine’s border are “in what we would consider forward positions, ready to go.” a senior defense official told reporters during an off-camera briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

Russian military forces “arrayed around Ukraine and Belarus are as ready as they can be,” for an invasion, the official said.

Russian military capabilities along the Ukraine border are “near 100% of all forces” that the Pentagon anticipated Putin would move into the area, the official added. Putin has a “full range of capabilities” already moved to the Ukraine border, including “significant offensive missile capability,” “two dozen warships in the Black Sea” and “armor, artillery, certainly infantry,” according to the official.

A data-wiping hacking tool was found on hundreds of computers in Ukraine Wednesday, according to cybersecurity researchers, raising concerns that a destructive cyberattack was unfolding as the Russian military moved into Ukraine’s separatist regions.

It wasn’t immediately clear who was responsible for the hacking incident, which followed a different cyberattack earlier Wednesday on Ukrainian government websites. The Ukrainian government did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Social media videos geolocated and analyzed by CNN over the past several days show a continuing buildup of armor and support vehicles less than 30 kilometers across the border in Russia.

US officials have said that they anticipate both a ground invasion and airstrikes should Russia launch an attack.

“Russian missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine. Communications will be jammed. Cyberattacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions,” Blinken said last week before the UN Security Council, describing how the US believed a Russian attack on Ukraine would unfold. “After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans.”

US, Europe say more sanctions ready if Putin further escalates

Biden on Tuesday described events now underway in Ukraine as “the beginning of a Russian invasion,” though senior administration officials did not initially confirm whether additional Russian troops had entered into the Donbas, where unmarked Russian forces have been propping up separatist fighters since 2014.

The US and European allies invoked sanctions against Moscow on Tuesday in response to Putin’s moves, and the White House announced Wednesday that it will allow sanctions to move forward on the company in charge of building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Kariņš told CNN that the initial round of sanctions from the US and Europe was only the beginning of the Western response toward Moscow if Putin escalates further in Ukraine.

“I think that what we’re seeing now is the first wave of sanctions. So Putin moves military units into Ukraine, the democratic world responds immediately, within one day, and across all the time zones, with coordinated and very deep sanctions,” he said. “If there would be more moves, there would be more sanctions, and they will only be cutting deeper and deeper.”

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s parliament said it was “dealing with a cyberattack” on its website, a member of Ukraine’s parliamentary press team confirmed to CNN.

Internet monitor NetBlocks tweeted that Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Security Service and Cabinet office websites have been “impacted by network disruptions.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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CNN’s Barbara Starr, Ellie Kaufman, Kevin Liptak, Vasco Cotovio, Tim Lister, Jennifer Hansler, Satyam Kaswala, Sean Lyngaas and Nikki Carvajal contributed to this report.

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