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U.S. continues diplomacy but girds for ‘dead serious’ invasion threat in Ukraine

Though American leaders said they’re still working toward a diplomatic solution, they stressed Sunday that what they’re seeing on the ground points to an imminent invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

The evidence cited includes intelligence from Ukraine and Western powers that false-flag operations, which Russian leader Vladimir Putin could use to fabricate an excuse to invade Ukraine and avoid taking responsibility for starting the conflict, are mounting. Even as Russian officials continued to deny that an invasion is planned, American leaders said facts on the ground suggest otherwise.

“We see a lot of tanks and armored vehicles there,” Austin said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We see a lot of artillery. We see rocket forces.”

Russia also decided to indefinitely extend the stay of its troops in neighboring Belarus, where military exercises were scheduled to end on Sunday. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, pointed to the decision as yet another sign of an imminent invasion.

But even as U.S. officials warned of the nearing threat in Ukraine, they also said they’re going all in on diplomatic talks with Russia to avoid such an invasion. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on Sunday described the efforts as a “full-court press” to solve the conflict through diplomacy.

Later Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that President Joe Biden and Putin had agreed to a summit.

Blinken is also scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, although he emphasized that Thursday’s meeting would not occur if Russia were to invade Ukraine. Blinken said Sunday that the U.S. will be open to the option of diplomacy “until the tanks are actually moving and the planes are actually flying,” reiterating multiple leaders’ comments that a diplomatic solution is still the goal.

While they worked toward diplomacy, many of the leaders, including Biden, echoed the same belief: that Putin has already decided to invade. Vice President Kamala Harris, who met with Ukraine’s president on Saturday, made it clear that she’s on the same page.

“As the President has said, we believe that Putin has made his decision,” she said Sunday morning. “Period.”

The president convened a meeting of the National Security Council on Sunday “to discuss the latest developments regarding Russia’s military buildup on the borders of Ukraine,” a sign that American leaders are increasingly preparing for the invasion threat. The White House earlier said that Biden would travel to Wilmington, Del., for the Presidents Day holiday, but then announced that he would stay in Washington after all.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who for weeks has warned against stoking panic in his country, said in a Saturday speech at the Munich Security Conference that Ukrainians will “protect our country with or without the support of our partners.”

Zelenskyy also called for immediate sanctions against Russia, which has been a major point of contention in the U.S. since the threat of an invasion into Ukraine came into focus. While the Biden White House insists that sanctions should be held back and used as a deterrent hanging over Putin’s head if he should decide to invade, some politicians, including many Republicans in Congress, want swift sanctions inflicted on Russia right now.

Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova echoed Zelenskyy’s frustrations on sanctions on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” The Ukrainian president has accused Western nations of appeasing Putin’s aggression.

While both Zelenskyy and Markarova have stressed that they are grateful to the United States and other Western nations for their help, the Ukrainian president’s Saturday speech showed that he wants the Biden administration to do more immediately — a sentiment that the ambassador seemed to echo on Sunday.

“Let me remind everyone we are at war and we are under attack for the past eight years, and should harsh sanctions or harsh reactions were in place in 2014 and 2015, maybe today we would be discussing the rocket launch that was yesterday was the first stage from Ukrainian companies or some other, more peaceful items to discuss,” Markarova said, referencing the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia.

“But unfortunately, today we are starting this morning as people are being shelled at in Ukraine.”

Though Harris supported Zelenskyy’s confrontational speech at the Munich Security Conference, she also defended the White House holding back on sanctions on Sunday. “The purpose of the sanctions has always been and continues to be deterrence,” she told reporters, adding that European allies and the U.S. agree on this method.

Asked whether the administration thinks the threat of sanctions will actually work at deterring Putin, the vice president said “we strongly believe” it could. Given that the window to find a diplomatic solution is “open, although it is absolutely narrowing,” Harris told reporters that “the deterrence effect, we believe, has merit.”

But as this diplomatic window seemingly narrows, the weekend’s comments suggested that Ukrainian and U.S. officials alike are girding themselves for an impending invasion.

Blinken pointed to Russia’s extension of its deployment in Belarus as indicating an upcoming invasion of Ukraine, saying: “Everything we’re seeing suggests that this is dead serious, that we are on the brink of an invasion.”

“We will do we can to try to prevent it before it happens, but equally we’re prepared, if he does follow through, to impose massive consequences, to provide for Ukraine’s ongoing defense and to bolster NATO,” the secretary of State added.

He went on to say that Putin is following the invasion playbook that the U.S. presented to the United Nations Security Council on Thursday. During the meeting, Blinken presented that Russia would fabricate a crisis to justify aggression and the presence of its troops. “He’s followed the script almost to the letter,” Blinken said.

“As we described it, everything leading up to the actual invasion appears to be taking place: all these false flag operations, all of these provocations to create justifications,” he said.

Austin said on “This Week” that the size and scope of Russian forces along Ukraine’s borders clearly pointed to the threat of a brutal invasion by Putin’s forces.

“If he employs that kind of combat power, it will certainly create enormous casualties within the civilian population and so this could create a tragedy, quite frankly, in terms of refugee flow and displaced people. So this is potentially very, very dangerous,” Austin told Martha Raddatz.

“I will do everything I can to see if we can advance a diplomatic resolution to this crisis created by Russia and its aggression against Ukraine,” he said. “We’ve put on the table a number of ideas that we can pursue that would strengthen security for Russia, for the United States, for Europe, if we engage them on a reciprocal basis.”

Despite all the mounting intelligence, and Western and Ukrainian officials making clear that they’re not buying Russia’s false flag operations, Kremlin leaders continue to insist that they’re not planning an invasion.

Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov denied any possibility of an invasion. “There is no invasion, and there is no such plans,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, saying Russia has “declared its readiness to continue the diplomatic efforts to resolve all outstanding issues.”

He also took the time to criticize NATO and the threat Russia feels from the organization and its alliance with Ukraine, a point the Kremlin has continued to lean on as it tries to paint itself as a victim of the treaty organization.

“It’s not a defensive alliance,” he said. “You see that North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not peace-loving NGO. It’s political military machinery, a bloc.”

David Cohen contributed to this report.

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