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President Biden says Russia invasion in Ukraine will happen within days

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A shift tonight from President Biden. He says the U.S. government has intelligence that shows a Russian attack on Ukraine is now likely.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning to and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the coming days. We believe that they will target Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million innocent people.

KELLY: Biden says he is convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the call. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins me now. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: President Biden has been talking about this as a risk for a while now. Tonight, he's making it sound like a likelihood. What accounts for the change?

KHALID: Well, he said the crisis has rapidly escalated. You know, there has been increased shelling in the Donbas region of Ukraine. But he also pointed to this disinformation campaign he says that the Russians have been spreading about Ukraine, saying that Ukraine is in fact planning to attack Russia. In the president's view, you know, he says this really defies logic, given how many troops, Russian troops, are encircling Ukraine. He says that this is all aimed at creating a pretext for a Russian invasion.

And so we heard President Biden say today that he's convinced Vladimir Putin has made up his mind to attack. He didn't specify what intelligence makes him so convinced of this, but I will say it was the strongest, most certain language we have heard Biden use to date.

KELLY: Among other things, I'm thinking Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, are supposed to meet for talks next week. Sounds like it might be the - what - the world's shortest meeting.

KHALID: Well, President Biden did say the meeting can proceed if Russia has not attacked by that point. And I will say, you know, sort of ever the optimist, Biden was asked if diplomacy is off the table, given what he was saying today. And he insisted, as long as Putin has not attacked, there is still a sliver of hope.

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BIDEN: Until he does, diplomacy is always a possibility.

KELLY: Now, aside from a military attack, a possible military attack, the White House is worried about cyberattacks, and there was one just this week already in Ukraine. What is the latest on that?

KHALID: The White House is saying that the Russian government was responsible for that attack, for the denial-of-service attack that targeted Ukrainian government and banking sites. Anne Neuberger is the head of cyber issues at the White House National Security Council. She said it's very unusual to attribute responsibility for an attack like this so quickly. But she said the administration felt it was important to call out the activity.

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ANNE NEUBERGER: While of limited impact, this recent spate of cyberattacks in Ukraine are consistent with what a Russian effort could look like and laying the groundwork for more disruptive cyberattacks accompanying a potential further invasion of Ukraine sovereign territory.

KHALID: The White House is concerned that Russia is pre-positioning for a cyberattack on Ukraine.

KELLY: And just a last update on where the allies are, how united the allies are - the president said today, as he has before, Russia will face severe financial sanctions if it invades Ukraine. Is the rest of NATO and other allies on board?

KHALID: That is a good question, Mary Louise. The White House says that it is working in lockstep with allies and that the test of unity isn't about whether or not the actions allies take are identical, but about whether allies all agree on the core principles at stake. That being said, it is not clear there's agreement on the specifics.

The Italian prime minister said today that energy imports should not be included in sanctions. The White House did say today that any sort of initial sanctions package will probably not include measures to remove Russia from the international banking transactions system known as SWIFT. That would make it impossible to do any kind of business with Russia, including energy purchases.

KELLY: Asma Khalid at the White House, thanks.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.