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White House warns Russian invasion ‘threat is immediate’

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Friday warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could come before the conclusion of the Winter Olympics on February 20, but did not say whether U.S. officials had determined whether Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a final decision on a course of action.

Sullivan urged Americans still in Ukraine to depart the country within the next 24 to 48 hours, saying President Joe Biden would not send troops into harm’s way to evacuate U.S. citizens who could have left the country when they had the chance. The U.K. government has advised British nationals to leave Ukraine immediately, and the EU’s diplomatic service has told non-essential staff in Ukraine to leave the country.

Sullivan’s statements represent the most dire U.S. assessment of the Russia-Ukraine conflict over months of escalating tensions between Moscow and the West.

“As we’ve said before, we are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time, should Vladimir Putin decide to order it,” Sullivan said at a White House news briefing. “I will not comment on the details of our intelligence information, but 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.”

Thus far, the Biden administration has sought to pursue a dual-track approach to the security crisis that leaves open the door to diplomacy with Moscow while warning of punishing international sanctions should Putin move his troops across Ukraine’s borders.

But the likelihood of an invasion has only increased in recent days, as Russia has begun massive joint military exercises with Belarus.

“We want to be crystal clear on this point: Any American in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible and, in any event, in the next 24 to 48 hours,” Sullivan said, adding: “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.”

Earlier Friday evening, the EU’s diplomatic service told nonessential staff in Ukraine to leave the country, a spokesman said.

“For the time being, the nonessential staff has been given the opportunity to leave the country. We continue to assess the situation as it develops in line with the duty of care we have towards our staff and in close consultation and coordination with the EU Member States,” said Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European External Action Service (EEAS).

According to one official, Matti Maasikas, the EU ambassador to Ukraine, said in an internal email: “I urge all expat staff, with the exception of the essential staff to leave Ukraine ASAP.”

The U.K. government has also advised British nationals to leave Ukraine immediately.

A Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office spokesperson said: “The safety and security of British nationals is our top priority, which is why we have updated our travel advice. We urge British nationals in Ukraine to leave now via commercial means while they remain available.”

Lili Bayer contributed reporting.

This article has been updated.

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