WASHINGTON — The U.S. has picked up intelligence showing that Russian military officials were given an order to go ahead with an invasion of Ukraine, a U.S. official and another person with knowledge of the matter told NBC News.
The intelligence, which was developed very recently, informed President Joe Biden’s startling declaration on Friday that the U.S. believes President Vladimir Putin has already decided to invade, the individuals said.
The U.S. then witnessed Russian military units taking steps to carry out the order in preparation for an invasion, further bolstering the assessment that Putin could strike at any time, they added.
“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision. We have reason to believe that,” Biden said at the White House Friday. Asked how the U.S. knew, the president said only: “We have a significant intelligence capability.”
Biden’s assertion had marked a shift after weeks of saying the U.S. believed Putin hadn’t made a final decision. On Saturday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he agreed with Biden that Putin had decided to invade and that Russia’s military was now in “the stance that you need to be in to attack.”
White House officials say that the threat level in eastern Ukraine and along the Russian border has not diminished over the weekend, despite diplomatic efforts by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a major annual security conference in Munich. The White House said that Biden was briefed again on Saturday by his aides that “Russia could launch an attack against Ukraine at any time.”
On Sunday, Biden convened a rare weekend meeting of the National Security Council focused on Ukraine, the White House said. Austin and Blinken, both newly back from Europe, were spotted entering the West Wing shortly before noon. A White House official said Harris would participate in the meeting remotely from Air Force Two while she flies back from Germany.
Blinken, who on Thursday told the U.N. Security Council of an elaborate Russian plot to fabricate a pretext for war, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Putin’s actions since then are “following the script that I laid out.” He pointed to his earlier predictions that Russia would mount false flag operations in eastern Ukraine and use purported temporary military exercises to justify a military buildup near Ukraine’s border.
“Everything we said was likely to occur in the lead up to the actual invasion is happening,” Blinken said.